How Bad Religion Has Bequeathed Us ‘An Anxious Age’

How Bad Religion Has Bequeathed Us ‘An Anxious Age’

Joseph Bottum’s new book, ‘An Anxious Age,’ argues America’s mainline denominations collapsed under their own weight, leaving a moral void our society has yet to fill.
Luma Simms

Over drinks at a party, an acquaintance described for me her property in Vermont. What she and her husband do to care for over 160 acres they own is extraordinary.

They bought the land (which was adjacent to their home) to save the town from sacrificing it on the altar of economic growth. My friend tells me of the townspeople and tourists who enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking, and the natural beauty of the woods, paths, and water on her land. She and her husband clear the paths, care for the woods, and do everything—by physical strength or monetary necessity—to ensure this land is well-kept and available to anyone who walks, hikes, hunts, or fishes. She tells of the birds, the wild turkeys, the bears—she tells me stories—and as she speaks, my mind’s eye sees the animals and the people, and I tear up.

I admire the self-sacrifice and giving spirit she displays. I admire her earnestness, her lack of guile. Unchurched by choice, she is still a child of Maine and Vermont, a child of New England, and all the history and culture therein.

Joseph Bottum would call her a “Poster Child,” one of the categories of contemporary Americans he discusses in his book, “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.” Bottum’s name for these folks, the heirs of the Puritans, may seem whimsical, but his analysis is quite sober.

A Poetic, Historic, and Theological Story

The broader thesis of this book may seem unoriginal on its face: The mainline Protestant churches have collapsed, leaving a void where once there had been a moral voice to temper democracy and capitalism. However, this important observation—a jewel, in fact—is contained among many others in this treasure chest of a book.

Bottum tells us the story of our country’s spiritual heritage.

Through his poetic, historic, and theological narrative, Bottum tells us the story of our country’s spiritual heritage. As he draws the arc of American culture and religion, we learn something about ourselves, for the story of America’s past—her loves, fears, strengths, weaknesses, conquests, and defeats are crystallized in our present story, as well. In Bottum’s analysis, it is easy to see one’s own story, even mine as an immigrant and Catholic convert.

Bottum is a superb storyteller, so it’s no wonder Mary Eberstadt writes that the book is “deftly analytical and also beautifully written[;] it has the head of Christopher Lasch and the heart of Flannery O’Connor.” If we but shut down our Internet, pour two fingers of Macallan neat, (or glass of wine, if you like) and “listen” carefully to the story Bottum tells, it may change the path we are currently on.

Poster Children: Modernity’s Unexpected Puritans

The first part of the book is a discussion of the Poster Children. These are the contemporary children (inheritors) of the Puritans and the mainline Protestants. These Puritan heirs have de-gospeled the gospel by throwing out Jesus and ascribing to their Protestant and Puritan ancestors all the ills of modern society.

Bottum picks up the story with the rise of certain “civic-spirituals” (my word, not his), followers of Max Weber and Walter Rauschenbusch, and the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. Bottum asserts that the Poster Children—modern liberals—are in fact quite religious. Their gods are the pantheon of contemporary modern social issues: environmentalism, abortion on demand, redefining and recreating human sexuality, and the like. Their ecclesiology is civic. According to Bottum,

They are, for the most part, politically liberal, preferring that government rather than private associations (such as intact families or the churches they left behind) address social concerns. They remain puritanical and highly judgmental, at least about health, and like all Puritans they are willing to use law to compel behavior they think right.

These are the new elites. This is who occupies the public square. How did we go from the Puritans to Poster Children? Bottum skips the details of this history, but the first part, the question of how and why the Puritans devolved into Unitarians and Universalists within just a few generations, has prompted more than a few scholars and historians over the years.

Puritans were obsessed with purity: Pure religion, pure living, pure institutions, pure people. They even left England because, in their opinion, the Church of England had not purified itself enough from Catholicism. (And although their persecution takes front and center in the narrative we have heard, we will never fully understand their history and its consequences if we refuse to take the former reason into account.) They were perpetually finding fault within themselves and their ranks; they were perpetually refining, and this hit a breaking point of the human spirit, psyche, and culture. They had cause to be skeptical of man’s fallen reason and intellect, even their own, yet relied on it to interpret scripture, believing that the Holy Spirit would preserve them in this.

Perry Miller, in “The New England Mind,” writes:

Protestantism always ran a hazard that through excess of zeal its doctrine might be perverted to erroneous conclusions. Unsophisticated laymen could never understand, after they had been taught that the natural mind was abysmally incompetent and that God had uttered the truth in clear and simple dicta, why they should still need ministers skilled in the sciences, in rhetoric, logic, and physics, in order to hear and comprehend the explicit word of God. They argued with a naïve plausibility that since regeneration infused God’s own substance into the elect, then a regenerated man thereafter required no other mentor than the Holy Ghost, no other instruction than its ever-present promptings…

From the time of the Anabaptists at Münster, Protestant theologians strove with might and main to keep justification by faith from becoming a justification of illiteracy. Such a perversion of the doctrine was as horrible to them as the Catholic [one.] Too much zeal was no more commendable than a lack of it, and in this world much more dangerous, not only for creedal uniformity, but for society and the ecclesiastical order, since thereby any Tom, Dick, or Harry would think he had all the requisites of a good minister when he felt himself moved by the right spirit.

Amidst this uneasy tension regarding the intellect, the Puritan’s perpetual refining and purifying cleft this culture in two. Explicit cracks began to show in the form of the “half-way covenant,” the term used for children and grandchildren of Puritans who couldn’t prove a substantial conversion experience. Thus, they even “purified” their own families to the point of division. Formally, the doctrine of the half-way covenant allowed “half-way” members to become part of the local congregations, baptize their children, and grow to “full membership” under the watchful eyes of the elders. They were not given access to the Lord’s Table, nor the right to vote (they had a congregational form of ecclesiology).

Eventually Puritanism was cleft into a side which, in this dilemma cited above, took the “intellectual” route, becoming the liberal wing of religious society, reading the Bible ever more faithlessly until arriving at Unitarian Universalist positions. Those who took the “faithful” route became the biblical wing on a march toward fundamentalism.

We’re On a Mission to Save the World

But let’s get back to Bottum’s story, sometime later near the turn of the twentieth century. By this time, we have seen something like a reverse-Hegelian dialectic cycle occurring within Protestantism: sects start strong and faithful with unified purpose, then eventually there is a split in interpretation, and the liberal and faithful go their separate ways. The faithful slowly settle into an internalized, detached faith, until some portion of them wakes to new calls for Christian charitable action.

The churches began taking their cues from the culture, suppressing and deforming Christ and his message.

Bottum focuses on a statement by Rauschenbusch in what he calls, “the best one-sentence summary of the theological complaint that led to the social gospel movement:” “Because the Kingdom of God has been dropped as the primary and comprehensive aim of Christianity, and personal salvation has been substituted for it, therefore men seek to save their own souls and are selfishly indifferent to the evangelization of the world.”

Amid a comfortable, internalized, lip-service-only brand of Christianity, the social gospel movement arose. Even after centuries of Protestant splits with similar dynamics, Bottum chooses to place the fulcrum of our religious history at this point. Despite complications and fraying over the centuries, a distinguishable and relevant “mainline” of Protestant churches remained to define and regulate American culture well into the twentieth century.

Wrapping all the churches up to this point under the single name “Protestantism,” he writes, “Protestantism… was our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape—and even the nation’s Catholics and Jews understood that they lived along its banks.” This Protestantism, alive in an asymmetric pluralism, gave America a conscience and a moral vocabulary. But after Bottum’s pivot point, when liberal Protestant theology took over the seminaries and the liberally-bred seminarians went into local churches small and large, the salt began losing its savor, and the light of the truth of Christ, which was to bring truth and salvation to the surrounding culture, became darkened.

The churches began taking their cues from the culture, suppressing and deforming Christ and his message. The alliance of the mainline with the social gospel movement, Bottum seems to say, led to the state of affairs before the end of the twentieth century, wherein “the central channel of American mainline Protestantism was almost dry.” Bottum mourns the loss of these denominations: “[T]he Mainline may have been an intellectually emaciated form of Christendom, as Catholic writers tended to insist, but it was all the Christendom we had in America, and it offered us a vocabulary with which both to criticize the nation and to support.” Precisely here, I respectfully disagree, but I understand his sentiment.

Religious Pruning Is Good

It is good that a dead and disfigured Christianity has perished. These apostate churches, and I mince no words here, these institutions whose Christian veneer finally gave way, were actually stumbling blocks to a real Christian witness in the public square. Not that an internalized and dissociated faith—no matter how sincerely salvific—is any replacement, of course. The ongoing death of mainline churches should be seen as an opportunity for authentic Christianity to rise—a Christianity that knows its identity is rooted not a priori in a political or social agenda, but in the gospel of Christ, from which our agenda must flow.

These institutions whose Christian veneer finally gave way were actually stumbling blocks to a real Christian witness in the public square.

Bottum’s Poster Children, and those whom I have labeled “civic-spirituals,” continue operating out of a loose Christian paradigm, but one untethered to the gospel of their forebears. Therefore, salvation for them is not in Christ but in the many causes—gods—who will cleanse them and the world from the sins of racism, bigotry, and the like. For all of their progression, they still retain their Puritan obsession with purity.

Bottum does a superb job telling us what happened and he tries to address how, as well. But I’m particularly interested in the why, because knowing will help us find ways out of our current and future cultural dilemmas. I believe this why is intimately tied to the anthropological problem of our misjudgment about the proper place of reason—a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are as man created in the image of God, or an identity crisis.

The Swallows of Capistrano Regenerate

In the second section of the book, Bottum tells of the rise and fall of what he calls the Swallows of Capistrano—that strong and moral Pope John Paul II generation that got some traction during the late 1980s and 1990s. They brought classic Christian vocabulary on morality and natural law back into the public square. This portion of the book takes an honest view of the hopes, strengths, and foibles of American Catholicism through this exhilarating time, and frankly made me wistful about missing out on the movement myself.

Just when these Catholic thinkers were on the rise, the priest sex-abuse scandals broke out.

But just when these Catholic thinkers were on the rise—and this greatly shortens Bottum’s treatment of them—the priest sex-abuse scandals broke out. This affected everything. The Swallows of Capistrano, he says, have not been able to re-establish themselves as an authoritative voice for morality, responsibility, and wisdom in the public square. I have to disagree again. Call it the hope of a convert. Better yet, call it the hopeful outlook of a fool who has peeked into the treasure chest of Catholicism and pleads for her betters to open it up and start unpacking.

Because America is so culturally Protestant, Bottum has difficulty seeing Catholicism as able to fill the void mainline churches relinquished through their apostasy. I know from my days as a Protestant that evangelicals of all stripes hope to fill this void, but I don’t see it happening. Secularists have told a narrative regarding right-wing fundamentalists that leaves a huge hurdle for evangelicals to overcome. Furthermore, evangelicalism’s thin intellectual heritage can’t take on secular philosophies. One of evangelicalism’s greatest blind spots is its sometimes-unintentional acquiescence to, and perpetuation of, the myth of a divorce between faith and reason. We know from Miller’s words above that this anti-intellectualism goes at least as far back as their Puritan spiritual forefathers.

Over-Intellectual Versus Anti-Intellectual

Like mother like daughter: modern Protestantism divides in the same way today. On the one side we see the syncretism of those who label themselves Progressive Christians, and on the other is the clinging to fideism (setting the primacy of faith against sin-damaged reason), by those who call themselves conservative Protestants. Although there is a spectrum in between, these two extremes dominate the overall Protestant landscape in America. Each side clings, puritanically, to its respective authorities: social conscience informed by rationalism on the one hand, and a literal documentary-prescriptive reading of scripture on the other.

Evangelicalism’s thin intellectual heritage can’t take on secular philosophies.

The Calvinist and Puritan notion that reason is not merely insufficient, but broken and twisted by sin, carries on to some degree in fundamentalist circles today. This view of reason contradicts the empirical experience of the rational secularist. However, because it is now such a part of the public narrative equating Christianity with right-wing fundamentalism, it (intentionally or unintentionally) puts many people in the position of believing they have to commit intellectual suicide to believe the truths of Christianity.

This is a problem with both modern atheist philosophy, which disrespects and discounts all previous thought that was the explicit product of a theistic worldview, as well as that of modern evangelicals, who have failed to leverage millenia of solid Christian philosophy into anything that gets traction in the broader culture. At the extreme end, you also find sects which, in the vein of the Unitarians of old, elevate human reason above God, leaving very little left by which to be called “Christian.”

While he does not address this in “An Anxious Age,” I suspect Bottum would see echoes of Puritanism in the “New Atheist” movement. Here is the rise of a certain atheistic scientism, its following composed largely of non-scientists who are quick to affirm their faith in the pronouncements of those they deem credible scientists, even when those pronouncements stray from science into the morally prescriptive realm. In fact, it appears the morally prescriptive “scientists” are those most willing to acquiesce to amassing such followers.

Regaining Public Trust in An Anxious Age

Rather than taking a low view of man’s intellect, promoting such a distrust of human knowledge, or conceding this false dichotomy between faith and reason, a Christian anthropology ought to echo St. Paul in Romans 1:19 and 20: “For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them: ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse.”

We need an intellectual evangelization.

In fact, along with the substantial philosophies of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church does just that. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason. Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created ‘in the image of God.’”

Certainly there are threads in the middle of the American Protestant landscape which today retain these and similar truths but, as Bottum asserts, they have become ineffectual in the culture.

If we want to bring love, beauty, truth, and goodness back to the public square, and if we want people to move from a human-reason understanding of God to a salvific understanding of God, we must respect the image of God in the secularists. We must respect their reason and meet them there. We need an intellectual evangelization. If not, the public square will continue to be dominated by the children of the Puritans—a people whose savior now is liberal ideology, and whose religious acts include activism aimed at destroying any remains of Christianity.

Poetic and historic, An Anxious Age tells us a sad story—a tragic story—of the demise of our country’s spiritual heritage. Like the water flowing down the Erie Canal, which kept cropping up as part of the book’s thesis, Bottum traces the ebb and flow of America’s soul, conceived when a Puritan’s boot touched the New England shores to where she lies now, with a certain air of senility about her dechristened public square.

Bottum ends “An Anxious Age” uncertain of the future. Perhaps it is his own anxiety reflected in the title. He ends still grieving the Protestant demise, but seems open to being convinced there may yet be hope somewhere. He just can’t see it. Bottum does not give a satisfying answer to the question: Who will stand for the voice of reason and morality in modern America? I think it’s because he’s unsure of not only who, but how that voice will rise above the din of the public square. He leaves the reader wanting, certainly if the reader seeks predictions, and literally ends with a “God help us,” the tone of which is hard to determine between hopeful and passive.

Bottum ends still grieving the Protestant demise, but seems open to being convinced there may yet be hope somewhere.

I am no prophetess, but I have tasted truth, beauty, and goodness, and I want it for my fellow man. Why is the story of the Poster Children instructive? Because it gives those who work and study at the intersection of faith and culture a way forward. When we understand the anthropological problem—a contradiction of our own recognition of rational faculties—that bred liberal Protestantism, which then led to liberal and Progressive evangelicalism, then we can stop applying band-aids and prescribing ineffective medication. Knowing the root cause of the disease, we can, as a union of Catholics and confessional and creedal Protestants, work together to regain public trust.

I say this because I believe that these two strands of Christianity have what it takes to unite in the public square even when they cannot fully unite theologically, yet. I believe this can happen because these strands of Christianity have fought against destructive philosophies about human reason, and have instead held faith and reason in an appropriate tension—all because they have kept two key ingredients of the Christian faith, which temper against rationalism and anti-intellectualism: the liturgy and the sacraments. Unpacking that is another day’s work.

The mark of a good book is to inform and impart wisdom. The mark of a great book is to inspire conversation, response, even disagreement. “An Anxious Age” falls into the latter category.

Luma Simms is an associate fellow at The Philos Project. She writes on culture, family, philosophy, politics, religion, and the life and thought of immigrants. Her work has appeared at First Things Magazine, Public Discourse, The Federalist, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @lumasimms.

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