From the March/April, 2015 issue of Touchstone


Prognosis Pending by John C. Chalberg

Book Review

Prognosis Pending

An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America by Joseph Bottum

Image, 2014
(296 pages, $25.00, hardcover)

reviewed by John C. Chalberg

A more accurate subtitle for this book might have been "The Post-Protestant Ethic and a Dis-spirited America." After all, the thrust of Joseph Bottum's story of our "anxious age" is the "catastrophic" collapse of an American Protestantism that did so much over the course of the nineteenth century to buttress the American experiment—and the American spirit. Not so in the twentieth century, laments an anxious Mr. Bottum, who worries that what's left of mainline Protestantism is out to redefine the American spirit, rather than revive it.

Behind this story is a "back story," or what Bottum calls the Erie Canal Thesis of American History. At issue is less the building of that canal than the "burned over district" that resulted from this massive project. As workers swept in and a canal was dug, the spirit of a missionizing American Protestantism swept in and "burned over" the entire region.

With this back-story briefly front and center, Bottum proceeds to remind us that many of the most important stories of a spirited America simply cannot be understood "without recognizing the central role played by Protestant Christianity." What makes our dispirited age such an anxious one is that the vibrancy of a confident, independent, biblically grounded American Protestantism has given way to a thoroughly secularized, mainline, "post-Protestant Christianity."

The Children of Post-Protestant America

Bottum traces the roots of this shift to the progressive movement of a century ago. More specifically, he dwells on Walter Rauschenbush and the Social Gospel movement, or, as Bottum so wryly puts it, the Social Gospel "without the gospel."

Wryness quickly gives way to irony, as Bottum cannot resist noting that today it is the most biblically based churches that offer their members the most positive social benefits, and all without claiming to provide such benefits. Here is a form of the social gospel—and social justice—with the gospel.

Such irony escapes the intellectual and cultural descendants of the original Social Gospelers. In fact, Bottum opens this book with telling sketches of his "poster children" for "post-Protestant America." Like their grandparents, they are full of "insufferable self-righteousness," especially when it comes to expressing their "moral and spiritual concerns." Mostly devoid of anything approaching biblical Christianity, they cannot avoid parading their moral and spiritual superiority. By their own self-assessment, they are good people. Bottum puts this a bit differently: they need to see themselves as good people.

While his subjects would be horrified at the comparison, Bottum labels them "highly judgmental" Puritans, who are also highly selective about what deserves to be judged. Highly anxious about matters of health, they are generally unconcerned about matters of sex. In Bottum's judgment, their amorality on the subject of sex represents one of the "most fascinating" shifts in modern American history. Not all that long ago the "moral center of human worrying" about the human body dwelt on sex. Today it zeroes in on food. He might have added exercise as well.

No Replacement for Dried-Up Mississippi

What greatly exercises Bottum is not just this shift—and not just the decline and fall of mainline Protestantism, but the high probability that nothing will be able to replace it. Protestantism was once our "cultural Mississippi." As such, it centered the country by giving all Americans a single vocabulary with which to "criticize and support the nation." It aided and corrected American democracy and American capitalism by both celebrating their strengths and successes and calling attention to their weaknesses and failings.

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While it would seem that Evangelicals and Catholics are the logical heirs to traditional American Protestantism, Bottum has serious reservations about the ability of either the Ohio (Evangelical) or the Missouri (Catholic) to transform itself into a mighty Mississippi. Evangelicals, he worries, have too little church organization, while Catholics have too much. He also suggests that Evangelicals lack intellectual heft, while Catholics may have an excess of the same.

In the second half of the book Bottum expands on these two assertions, even as he gives short shrift to Evangelicals and ultimately fails to explain why either Evangelicalism or Catholicism—or both—cannot one day assume the dual roles of critic and cheerleader that mainline Protestantism once played so well. Yes, Evangelicals have retreated from the political battlefields. Yes, the clergy sex scandal has badly damaged the American Catholic Church. Yes, "America was, and remains, a mildly anti-Catholic country." But is that necessarily the end of the story?

A Slender Hope in the Swallows' Return

While Bottum closes his book with brief portraits of recent Catholic heavyweights and luminaries, he seems to place his greatest, if still slender, hopes in mostly nameless young prolife Catholics, who comprise what he terms the "swallows of Capistrano."

As he sees it, along about 1970, American Catholic leaders knocked out all of the swallows' nests and expelled church "ornamentation." Removing the "mess was not unintelligent or uninformed or unintended. It was merely insane." After all, this "mess" gave not just beauty and life to the church, but something called "catholicity" as well.

Today Bottum sees signs that the swallows might be returning. Here he trains his sights on something other than ornamentation; namely, the abortion debate and a return to natural law philosophy. Still, he refuses to be optimistic. If he thinks it is true and a good thing that the American Catholic Church is no longer an "arm of the Democratic left," he also declares it to be true—and far less than good—that the "Evangelicals and Catholics together" project has "failed." But has it failed for good? Bottum seems to think so.

As he sees it, the swallows may be returning, and Catholic culture may be reviving, but the church is still in "no position to combat the new elect class of post-Protestants" for space in the public square. In addition, Catholics remain savagely divided between those who seek "power and acceptance" and those who seek to advance a "moral (prolife) agenda." Moreover, they will likely remain at odds until the abortion fight is either "won or abandoned."

Will it be won? Bottum does not claim to know. What he does know is that it must be won, if he is ever going to be persuaded that the gap left by the collapse of nineteenth-century Protestant Christianity might one day be filled. In the meantime, he takes some solace from knowing that every attempt to anchor human dignity in something other than biblical religion has ultimately failed. Of course, such knowledge will not prevent ongoing attempts to realize the impossible.

Hoping for the Murray Project

Bottum also knows that in America, "politics without religion" inevitably becomes the "politics of me." But once again, the unfortunate appeal of such a politics cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, he tries to draw at least a measure of hope from something else that he knows; namely, that one of the great gifts of the Catholic Church is that it provides a "room with a view." That is to say it offers a place from which one can look out at the world rather than in on the self. So maybe, just maybe, a thorough Catholic revival might yet serve as a prelude to a genuine renaissance of the American spirit.

In a sense, Joseph Bottum is asking (and hoping?) for the completion of what he terms the "Murray Project," part of which was the effort of Fr. John Courtney Murray to convince the country that Catholics were safe for a modern democracy. Today it is the country's left-leaning elite that is most in need of such convincing.

Better than a half-century ago, says Bottum, Fr. Murray seemed to think that American Catholics would provide the "missing support for the American proposition." Today, Bottum seems to want to believe this as well. The difference between then and now is that the current task is at once more necessary and far more daunting. Is the American Catholic Church, in league with its allies among the biblically religious, up to the challenge? An anxious Joseph Bottum wants to be hopeful, but he remains very doubtful. Is he up to making the case that this attempt must be made? The best that can be said is that he seems to be trying to be. •

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota.

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“Prognosis Pending” first appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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