The Center Does Not Hold: Bastard Christianities

If his lecture outlining his argument is any indication, Catholic intellectual Joseph Bottum’s new book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Image 2014), is going to be talked about “far and wee”:

The major event that allowed this spiritualizing of our politics is the utter collapse of the Protestant mainline churches, those once central and stabilizing institutions in the American experiment. With their collapse, since the 1970s, strange entities have broken loose to find a new home in politics. There’s a reason far too many Americans think their opponents are evil. Politics has become a supernatural battleground, where we want to work out not our political problems, but our spiritual anxieties.

The disappearance of the Protestant ascendancy that defined the American new world for 300 years is a cause of enormous amounts of our current political situation, of our incivility toward one another, and of our politics of salvation.

That’s his thesis. Here he is fleshing it out a bit:

We live in what can only be called a spiritual age, swayed by its metaphysical fears and hungers, when we imagine that our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but actually evil. When we assume that past ages, and the people who lived in them, are defined by the systematic crimes of history. When we suppose that some vast ethical miasma, racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selfish blindness, determines the beliefs of classes other than our own. When we can make no rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree. The Republican Congress is the Taliban. President Obama is a Communist. Wisconsin’s governor is a Nazi.

We live in a spiritual age when we believe ourselves surrounded by social beings of occult and mystic power, when we live with titanic cultural forces contending across the sky, and our moral sense of ourselves, of whether or not we are good people, of whether or not we are redeemed, takes its cues primarily from our relation to those forces. We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological, when how we vote is how we are saved.

Our world is filled with bastard Christianities, on both the Left and the Right.

And here’s his take on environmentalism (which sounds like a script outline for the new Noah movie):

It is commonplace among conservative commentators to point out the ways in which environmentalism sometimes acts as though it were a religion, rather than a political or social view. But few of those commentators pursue the thought down to the actual worldview, which is almost definitively the Church of Christ without Christ.

This is a Christian story, a supernaturally charged history that would have been familiar to Augustine and Anselm. We have an Eden, a paradise of nature, until the fall, which was the emergence of sentient human beings as polluters, injuring the world as the world was meant to be. We have a long era of progressive damage, all aiming toward the apocalypse – the final injuring of the world beyond repair. Strong environmentalism offers, in essence, St. Augustine’s dark worldview without any grace or redemption for human beings. Environmentalism offers, in essence, Christianity without Christ.

And here’s Bottum’s take on another form of bastard Christian: the college-educated liberal like me. He calls me and my fellow travelers “post-Protestants”:

[P]ost-Protestants have gradually formed the core of a new and fascinating social class in America. Although not as dominant as their genuinely Protestant forebears once were, they nonetheless set the tone for much of our current political discourse. And we can recognize their origins in mainline Protestantism when we discern some of the ways in which they see the world and themselves. They are, for the most part, politically liberal, preferring that government rather than private associations address social concerns. They remained puritanical and highly judgmental, at least about health. And like all puritans, they are willing to use law to compel behavior they think right.

Nonetheless, they do not think of themselves as akin to their puritan ancestors, for they understand Puritanism as concerned essentially with sexual repression. And the post-Protestants have almost entirely removed sexuality from the realm of human action that might be judged morally.

In the poster children, this typically manifests itself in strong political support for abortion and same-sex marriage, no expressed disapproval of either divorce or the bearing of children out of wedlock, and an uneasy feeling that the eating of meat and the drinking of sugary sodas are not just unhealthy, but actually slightly shameful — minor and venial sins, perhaps, when compared with such mortal sins as obesity and smoking, but sins, nonetheless.

Their deepest awareness of sin, however, derives from their sense of a shadowy evil that lies over the past, and over much of the present as well. The language of sin and redemption is a Christian one, of course, and thus part of what these post-Protestants have explicitly left behind, but it’s hard to know what other vocabulary will convey exactly how members of this new class understand reality, for anxious they truly are. A need to see themselves as good people, a hunger for spiritual confidence in perfect parallel to the hungers that drove previous generations of American Protestants, still compels them in deeply significant ways.

In their view, the world is filled with malignant social forces – bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, oppression. These horrors are the constant theme of history. They have a palpable metaphysical presence in the world. And the post-Protestants believe that the best way to know themselves as moral is to define themselves in opposition to such bigotry and oppression, understanding good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior, but as states of mind about the social condition.

Heady, heady cultural criticism. Very astute. I’m getting the book, so probably will share more on Bottum’s ideas anon.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to The Center Does Not Hold: Bastard Christianities

  1. Gede Prama says:

    Thank you, great inspiring blog, i’m so looking forward to start reading and discovering what you write on here.. 🙂

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