An Anxious Age—and an Antagonistic Future?

Jody Bottum’s new book examines why the old language of traditional religion is out, and a new language of spirituality is in.

In 1965, more than 50 percent of Americans were active members of mainline Protestant churches. Today that number is down to under 10 percent. Meanwhile, Catholicism in America continues to enjoy moderate success, primarily due to the wave of new immigrants, but weekly Mass attendance is in significant decline. Yet ask the average passerby on the streets about their religious beliefs and few are willing to dismiss religion all together. From the increased practiceof yoga, to the deeply moralistic rationale of Wall Street’s occupiers in 2011, to Tea Party members who invoke the Almighty as often as they do patriotic duty, there is no shortage of spiritual language filling our public discourse today—it’s just that American religion as we have known it is seemingly passé.

The old language of traditional religion is out. A new language of spirituality is in.

“Ours is an anxious age—the Anxious Age, it often seems,” writes Joseph Bottum in his new book by that very title. “A moment more tinged by its spiritual worries than any time in America since perhaps the 1730s,” he speculates. Borrowing from the great sociologist Max Weber, Bottum laments the disenchantment of the world, and in particular, the fact that Christianity has been stripped bare of its mystery and supernatural elements, with social and political ideas now elevated to the divine and with science considered salvific.

Bottum’s project in An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America is twofold: first, to trace the decline of mainline Protestantism in America, which has been central to our public institutions and vocabulary. “When the Mainline died,” he writes, “it took with it to the grave the vocabulary in which both criticism and support of the nation could be effective.”

Secondly, Bottum chronicles the rise of intellectualized Catholics who attempted to offer an alternative of this moral practice and vocabulary in America and the difficulties of fashioning a new Catholic culture in its place.

At first it might seem strange for Bottum, a widely known Catholic public intellectual, to lament the decline of Protestantism. Yet the Protestant mainline has buttressed the moral foundations of the United States since its founding. “Protestantism”, Bottum explains, “nonetheless gave America something vital: a social unity and a cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations. And America gave Protestantism something in return: a chance to flourish without state interference, a freedom to fulfill the human desire for what lies beyond the material world.”

In order to illustrate his thesis, Bottum turns to the “poster children”, as he labels them. These poster children are individuals from post-Protestant families who favor government over civil society, tend to be leftward leaning in their politics, and reticent to judge any type of sexual behavior. Meanwhile, they remain moralistic in their thinking, concerned with matters of bigotry, oppression, and participation in collective social sin, though less bothered by personal behavior. In describing these poster children, Bottum introduces us to a cast of characters (all fictionalized, though based on real life acquaintances) that have been shaped by the advantages of Protestant culture: not exactly elites, but privileged in terms of education and access to power, and whose own religious formation has been steeped in the social gospel, with little introduction to doctrine. For these poster children, their salvation is made certain by social progress.

Yet as this increased abandonment of doctrine and reduction of faith to mere moral feelings, our society has lost the spiritual capital necessary to sustain our liberal democracy. Where, then, do we go from here?

Bottum turns to Catholicism’s efforts to fill the empty space left by the decline of the mainline, noting, “Catholicism offered to the modern world one of the few available models of explanation for the unity of art, philosophy, and science.” From the global-traveling papacy of John Paul II to the likes of Catholic public intellectuals such as National Review’s William F. Buckley to arguments over abortion where the Catholic tradition’s natural law approach shaped the way an entire country discussed public policy, Catholicism increasingly gained both power and persuasion in America.

From the wave of new converts to the faith to the increased reliance on Catholic intellectual thought, the post-World War II success of Catholicism in America evidences the achievement of Catholic intellectuals in “convincing Catholics that modern democracies were safe for Catholics, and convincing everybody else that Catholics were safe for modern democracies.” Unfortunately, this victory was short-lived.

Alongside this success is a mixed legacy: a generation of bishops, in the years following the Second Vatican Council, who invested all of their energy in social justice commitments, while failing to catechize their flock; a Catholic laity unwilling to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception, which rendered a painful blow to the Church’s moral authority; and a sexual abuse crisis that weakened the Church’s public credibility. While reform of these matters has been underway for some time, this inner turmoil prevented the Church’s triumph in the immediate decades of post-Protestant America.

Perhaps much of this can be attributed to the increased individuality of American religion, but what this will mean for the future of the American experiment remains undetermined. While Americans remain spiritually engaged, the general unwillingness to embrace a particular form of religious practice has rendered American religion deeply fragmented and reduced to primarily an individual project. “Is there a common enough denominator in American religious belief to permit the inference that Americans as a whole believe religion necessary to sustain our form of government?” asks Bottum.

On this point, Bottum is optimistic, though rightfully worried. If the ideas of liberalism—the foundation for the American project—are actually predicated on biblical Christianity, as Bottum believes they are, what are we to make of a nation that lacks a unified public vocabulary in order to discuss and direct our moral vision?

Jody Bottum is a first-rate essayist who writes with flair and finesse, offering a critical analysis of where and how we’ve gone wrong. While some readers may remember his controversial August 2013 Commonweal essay on same-sex marriage (“Things We Share”) and as such be wary of this work, such a view would be shortsighted. An Anxious Age is an important book for serious Christians of all persuasions and anyone interested in both the history and future of American religion. While the first section of the book is more linear and offers a clearer chronological account of the rise and fall of mainline Protestantism, the second section offers broad strokes and snapshots of Catholic culture—in both its successes and failures.

Bottum’s work is primarily descriptive in nature and does not offer any hard predictions for what the future might hold. There is indeed the possibility that we might hope to begin to reintegrate the public square with a religious language where the poster children of post-Protestant America are convinced by the Catholic converts—or are at least hospitable to their convictions. But that remains unresolved. Considering the widespread skepticism and even hostility in which religious expression is viewed in America, it’s seemingly unlikely. And if this is, indeed, the future that awaits us, it’s highly probable that this anxious age in which we live will give rise to an antagonistic one to follow.

An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America
by Joseph Bottum
Image, 2014
Hardcover, 320 pages

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.