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BOOK REVIEW: ‘An Anxious Age’

- - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

AN ANXIOUS AGE: THE POST-PROTESTANT ETHIC AND THE SPIRIT OF AMERICA
By Joseph Bottum
Image, $25, 296 pages

Recent surveys suggest that people who are "spiritual, but not religious" now constitute perhaps 20 percent of the American adult population.

"An Anxious Age" is a provocative and profound look at how America is both religious and a country where some elites are convinced that religion is fading. We may have lost faith in God and the devil, but believe tenaciously in other unseen forces such as globalization, racism and "prejudice" of various kinds. Not only in such forces, but behind many an Occupy Wall Street radical or fading hippie leftist is a belief in the healing power of crystals or some mysterious "flow" that determines the universe.

It is a strange age, indeed.

With his exquisite, precise descriptions of what he calls the "swallows" and the "poster children," Joseph Bottum has changed the way we will look at American religion in this increasingly post-Christian era. Mr. Bottum wants to answer a couple of important questions of American religious sociology: Where has the Protestant mainline gone, and why hasn't Catholicism, which is the largest denomination in America and comes ready-made with a long tradition of intellectual, moral and political engagement, taken its place as a defining cultural force?

The poster children are the heirs of the '60s cultural revolution. They reject organized religion, but still cling fiercely to moral absolutes. Now drained of theological substance, "America's metaphysical realm has been gradually repopulated with social and political ideas elevated to the status of strange divinities," Mr. Bottum writes.

He traces this to the early 20th-century Social Gospel movement and the Protestant writer Walter Rauschenbusch. This movement has created a post-Protestant class: "Christian in the righteous timbre of its moral judgments, without any actual Christianity; middle class in social flavor, while ostensibly despising middle-class norms; American in cultural setting, even as [they believe] American history is a tale of tyranny."

More interestingly, he finds that contrary to many commentators, the Protestant elite is still in charge, but they simply are no longer Protestant. Their values, their sense of entitlement, their conviction that they have the most complete, progressive worldview, however, remain the preserve of the heirs of the WASP establishment, even in its dissipation.

The swallows, too, reflect the '60s conflagration, but in a different way. The term denotes the famous swallows of the San Juan Capistrano mission in California, to which the birds return every spring after a winter's migration.

These swallows are Catholics, mostly, who grew up with the Church of John Paul II and his rock-star papacy. The swallows returned, in Mr. Bottum's striking phrase, to the ruined chapels of Catholicism in the 1980s and 1990s. However, these Catholics were not, or not only, what Mr. Bottum calls tribal Catholics, holding their faith by ethnicity or neighborhood.

That era of Catholic life in America had passed away. Along with it went the rich cultural traditions and practices that Mr. Bottum evokes here with deep sympathy, even as he recognizes that their permanence was impossible in this new nation.

These younger Catholics were primarily focused on the faith's intellectual attractions, finding in Catholicism a system of thought and reflection that can cure the world of its modern ills. The swallows thought with the collapse of the mainline Protestant denominations, the Church would take their place as a form of intellectual and moral ballast for a wayward America.

This continued the project started by thinkers such as John Courtney Murray and the now-deceased Richard John Neuhaus, who sought to reconcile Catholicism with American democracy. However, this was not to be. For a variety of reasons, "nearly every political position for which the public vocabulary of Catholic thought was thus used has ended up losing."

Loss of the rich Catholic parish culture, the clerical abuse scandals and the still-strong reflex of American anti-Catholicism all contributed to this loss. The swallows perhaps underestimated the importance of culture to their project. They have produced many philosophers and theologians, and many essayists, but not many filmmakers, poets or novelists.

Although unintentionally, they neglected to observe Catholicism's core cultural insight that mores and practices for the average person in the pew (or in the voting booth) are more important than pure logic.

So there is a hole in the center of American culture. Once filled by the mainline and not replaced by Catholicism, that space has been filled by a kind of extreme individualism; religion is what you make of it, or you can make nothing of it. However, a common civil religion, of a sort, has always defined the American polity, even within its broad wash of tolerance for people going their own way.

As Tocqueville and others have recognized, American religion and American exceptionalism have proceeded together. Now that they have been sundered, other choices present themselves. "An Anxious Age" explains how we can make the best of what confronts us.

Gerald Russello is editor of the University Bookman (kirkcenter.org).