An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America

An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America

by Joseph Bottum

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  We live in a profoundly spiritual age, but not in any good way. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators:

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  We live in a profoundly spiritual age, but not in any good way. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand of the side of morality--to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.
   In An Anxious Age, Joseph Bottum offers an account of modern America, presented as a morality tale formed by a collision of spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the  most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.
   Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism, Max Weber's sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies of contemporary social classes adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave them meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls "the Poster Children," Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors' Christianity. Turning to the Swallows of Capistrano, the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories--and later defeats--of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying mainline voice in public life.
   Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A strikingly original diagnosis of the national moral condition. . . . Deftly analytical and also beautifully written, it has the head of Christopher Lasch and the heart of Flannery O’Connor. Anyone wishing to chart the deeper intellectual and religious currents of this American time, let alone anyone who purports to navigate them for the rest of the public, must first read and reckon with An Anxious Age." (National Review, Mary Eberstadt)
“Provocative and profound. . . . With his exquisite, precise descriptions, . . . Joseph Bottum has changed the way we will look at American religion.” (Washington Times, Gerald Russello)
“The writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters. . . . His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey. . . . The most interesting, accessible, and perceptive analysis of recent American religious history in years.” (The University Bookman, Geoffrey Kabaservice)
“An interpretive guide with great explanatory power. . . . James Burnham, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, . . . with the publication of An Anxious Age, I wonder if these earlier thinkers haven’t all been surpassed. (The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty)
“Joseph Bottum may be America’s best writer on religion. . . . [An Anxious Age is] a new and invaluable contribution to our understanding of America’s frame of mind, . . . a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike.” (American Interest, David Goldman) 

"An Anxious Age is a remarkable work--bursting at the seams with ideas, insights, analyses and propositions about Protestantism and Catholicism, religion and America, God and man, past and present, the public sphere and our private lives. It is one heck of a book." -William Kristol, Editor, The Weekly Standard

"An Anxious Age is bound to be viewed as a classic of American sociology—not only because of its vast knowledge of historical facts and personalities, its depth and multiple layers of meaning, but also because of its literary elegance and imaginative structure. Bottum offers a wholly new way of understanding religion in public life today. His 'Erie Canal Thesis' about the history of American culture is brilliantly laid out, and the magical trick Bottum works when he asks, Where did the Protestant ethic go? is nearly breathtaking. Who would have guessed that the starchy morals of an older generation would evaporate so quickly—and yet later Christianity-less generations would still exude the same old assumption of moral superiority? Joseph Bottum stands among the nation’s most vivid and penetrating writers." -Michael Novak, Winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize, Author of Writing from Left to Right

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The Poster Children


She lives in Oregon, a woman I know. Call her Bonnie, Bonnie Paisley. Married and divorced twice, she has two children. The younger one, the daughter, lives with her, while the older one, the son, stays with her first husband and his current wife--although that couple, too, is getting divorced, and it looks as though, for now, the boy will remain in Connecticut with his stepmother and her children.

Bonnie is a psychologist by profession, with a master’s degree from a California state university. UC Davis, I think, although I keep forgetting to ask. She has a home office in one of those surprisingly sleepy, droopy-pine Oregon towns outside Portland: a nice big old wooden house, all dark brown shingles and red trim. And to visit, even to hear her talk about it, is to realize the extent of her house pride. Not wealthy (not poor either, but she lives off her alimony and her work primarily for the county government), she paid for her perfected house mostly with thoughtfulness and elbow grease: every decoration carefully chosen, every antique sensitively restored, every wall color precisely matched, every environmentalist touch gently installed.

She would mock--in conversation, she does mock--the sterile flawlessness of 1950s suburbia. Ozzie and Harriet houses, she calls them, Leave It to Beaver homes. Of course, born in 1972, she has no memory of television’s original presentation of those fantasy residences. But for people like Bonnie, the 1960s-style sneer at the 1950s remains a common cultural coin, much as Edwardian ridicule of prissy schoolmarms and teetotaling aunts long outlasted any reality of prim Victorian women perched on Victorian chairs in overcrowded Victorian parlors. In truth, Bonnie’s careful house is a re-creation of the old television homes she mocks. Only the styles have changed: the black slate kitchen counter, the rough plank wood floor, the tied-rag rugs, that piece of oiled driftwood on the table behind the sofa, the oval bowl of smooth black stones beside the needles shoved through a ball of red yarn for her somewhat ironically indulged hobby of knitting, and over there--twisting and sparkling in the afternoon sun through the west windows--the rainbowed New Age crystals.

Ah, yes, the New Age stuff. Bonnie says she isn’t really deep into it--the sand candles and cartomancy, incense holders and angelology, the crystal balls: all the quasi-religious accoutrements they sell down at the local New Age bookstore. She hired a feng shui consultant while first setting up the parlor in the old house to be her consulting office, but she’s swapped out so much of the furniture and decoration that, she jokes, the positive chi has all drained down to the basement. And anyway, the point of that nice wooden home on a tree-lined Oregon street is that it expresses her somehow: her personality, her inner self, her way of being. She perceives it, more than anything else in her life, as her projection in the world.

As far as religion goes, she doesn’t have any. At least not any she follows with commitment, although she insists she’s a spiritual person. Her great-grandparents, her father’s grandparents, were Jewish immigrants, but their children stopped going to synagogue back in the 1940s and 1950s and married Gentiles. By the time the family line reached her, no one had practiced Judaism for over a generation. Bonnie sometimes calls herself Jewish, but mostly that’s just a way of saying she’s not one of those old-fashioned Christians. A way of saying she has broken free from the more dominant side of her family--her mother’s clan, who were once Scotch-Irish pillars of the First Presbyterian Church in a town much like, say, Mason City, Iowa.

Some of this seems to involve (as far as she’ll let on) the emotional hangover of her parents’ bitter divorce when she was eight or nine. But that cannot be the complete explanation. Everyone’s story is unique, of course, caught up in the particularities of personal experience, but in the aggregate, our stories tend to bunch up and travel together like caravans down the same highways. That’s what the discipline of sociology is supposed to be about: the combinations and shared paths, the millions of eccentric individual choices coalescing into cultural norms. It’s sociologically meaningless to say that Bonnie could have responded to her spiritual situation by worshiping the Thousand Gods of the ancient Hittites or by joining the local Oregon chapter of the Roman cult of Mithras. Possible beliefs exist, at any given moment, as either live wires or dead wires (to use a helpful metaphor William James gave us back in 1896), and whatever our theoretical possibilities, our practical choices are limited to the ones that still have some electricity running through them.

Seriously religious people have difficulty believing that any power can be pushed down the “I’m spiritual but not religious” wire. For that matter, Bonnie’s occasional claims of Jewishness don’t sound particularly religious when she deploys them; they’re more like grabs at an ethnic identity in the handful of moments when she feels she needs one (“Scotch-Irish Orange” just not having much oomph in America’s complex hierarchy of ethnic groups anymore). But there are cultural reasons that Bonnie, a reasonably smart and independent woman, has made what look at first blush like thin and unoriginal choices--class-based and socially determined preferences--in her spiritual life. And the most telling of those reasons may be that the wire of possible spiritual belief is even thinner, carries even less power, at the local Mainline Protestant church down the street from her in Oregon.

Or back at her family’s First Presbyterian Church in Mason City, Iowa, for that matter. Everyone in America has an idea of Mason City as it existed (or is imagined to have existed) a hundred years ago. It was the boyhood home of the songwriter Meredith Willson, and when he sentimentalized it as “River City” for his 1957 Broadway extravaganza The Music Man, he painted a picture of small-town America probably even more enduring than what Thornton Wilder achieved with Grover’s Corners in Our Town or Edgar Lee Masters managed with Spoon River--if only because Willson took all the stereotypes of small towns’ stolid, prudish closed-mindedness and played them for sweet, indulgent laughs: comic foibles, bathed in a golden light.

As it happens, Mason City also features in One Foot in Heaven and Get Thee Behind Me, a pair of best-selling 1940s memoirs about being the child of a preacher on the Methodist circuit in Iowa, by a writer named Hartzell Spence. Spence would go on from that parsonage upbringing to become editor of the G.I. magazine Yank during the Second World War, where he coined the noun pin-up to describe the weekly pictures he published of Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, and other Hollywood bathing beauties. One doubts, somehow, that this is quite what his Wesleyan parents had in mind for him.

And yet Spence would also go on to produce a 1960 book called Story of America’s Religions (with its time-capsule subtitle “Published in Cooperation with the Editors of Look Magazine”) and the 1961 Clergy and What They Do. Copies are hard to find, but they may be worth the effort, for they remain wonderfully representative of their time. Oh, they have a touch of that American “multiple melting pots” stuff that they got from Will Herberg’s widely discussed 1955 book Protestant–Catholic–-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Mostly, however, they paint a panglossy, Look magazine view of the American landscape at the beginning of the 1960s. It is a terrain dominated by a Protestant establishment that sees itself as modern, confident, liberal, and in charge--a Protestant establishment big enough and sure enough to accept and even celebrate a Catholic president with John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960.

The standard histories of those days (the histories, that is to say, written now) typically describe the era after the Second World War as entirely consumed by the emerging civil rights movement and the communist witch-hunts, by the hipsters and the beatniks, by the unease of big organizations and the man in the lonely crowd. At most, however, those were merely the fastest or flashiest, the most visible, of the fish swimming along at the time. And the unremarked water around them was the sea of ordinary Mainline Protestantism.

You can experience something of that drowned world in Get Thee Behind Me, which Spence ends with a chapter about his sister Eileen’s wedding in Mason City. It’s a touching scene in its sentimental way, with parishioners from Methodist churches across the Midwest traveling to see the Reverend Spence perform the marriage of his daughter: “Bossy as father was in details of the ceremony, he was a magnificent host. . . . At the wedding he did not eclipse the bride. The marriage ceremony was a sacrament from the first musical chord. He was the preacher then, not the father, and he did not steal the show. Occasionally, like a good theatrical producer, he cast an eye over the house for flaws in the production, but no one noticed that.”

The scene holds some comedy, too--as when Eileen asks for “no fussing, no elaborate, expensive costuming for the girls, no long guest list.”

Father read the restrictions imposed in her special-delivery letter and let out a roar that halted passers-by outside. She had chosen a husband, but a wedding was something she knew nothing about. He had performed 2,200 weddings. How did she know what was proper? . . . During hundreds of elaborate church weddings he had been gaining experience, experimenting with dramatic effects at the expense of the daughters of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen in three states. Now it would be a wedding such as nobody had ever seen--of the essence of his experience. It could not be any other way.

Mostly, though, Spence uses his sister’s wedding to finish off Get Thee Behind Me with a scene of American uplift and confidence--a picture of liberal sentiment and right thinking, an image of where Protestantism imagined it stood in the middle decades of the twentieth century:

This wedding was more than the marriage of a daughter. It was a symbol of a family grown, educated, planted in the soil, embarked upon its own life.

It was a chance to show off a daughter and two sons reared in a Christian environment, an opportunity to say: “This is what can be accomplished when the home is as it should be. Here is my daughter, gracious, beautiful, a successful schoolteacher, bride of an upstanding young man. Here is my older son, who is steadily employed at a job with a future. Here is my younger son, and you have only to look at him to know he’ll get on in the world. They are clean-cut children, conscientious, molded by a firm but not too narrow hand into the kind of stuff that survives economic and spiritual upheavals.”

He couldn’t very well point with pride unless the whole town was there to see.

Hartzell Spence died in 2001 at age ninety-three, which would make his grandchildren about the age of Bonnie Paisley in Oregon. What odds that any of those grandchildren are still practicing Methodists? In a single generation the stern and specific 1920s Wesleyanism of the Reverend Spence had already weakened--not thinning down, exactly, like a stone wearing away, but thinning up, like helium dissipating in the atmosphere--into his writer son’s kind of high-minded, generic 1950s Christianism. And the same process was occurring at the nearby Episcopal church in Mason City, and the Congregational church, and the Presbyterian church of Bonnie’s grandparents.

All that remained was the next step of dropping the word Christian, thinning up one last step into the airy reaches. In the end, perhaps that’s the best way to understand Bonnie and her view of herself in the world. She doesn’t differ all that much from her grandparents; in key ways she is her Iowa grandparents: in social class, in the curious combination of anxiety and self-esteem, in cultural placement, in essential Americanism.

Of course, they were church-attending Protestants, and she is not. But Bonnie’s life illustrates where American Mainline Protestantism has gone, the place at which it’s been aiming for generations: 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 she believes American history is a tale of tyranny from which she and those like her have barely managed to escape.

If one were to call Bonnie a Protestant, millions of believing Evangelicals, millions of practicing Southern Baptists and Pentecostals--millions of actual Protestants--would be offended. And rightly so. Still, if Protestantism means something in America besides a theological connection with the great sixteenth-century leaders of the Reformation (Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the rest), then there’s a sense in which America’s modern Evangelicals aren’t exactly Protestants. Even the serious churchgoing members left in the nation’s decaying Mainline denominations aren’t really Protestants anymore--not if Protestantism is taken in the full American cultural meaning it’s had since the days of its high nineteenth-century flowering.

Although nearly everyone who grew up in this country has an idea of what that cultural meaning is, it proves surprisingly hard to define or even describe: a strange, protean thing--pervasive yet amorphous, powerful yet vague. Through most of our national history, American Protestantism provided a substitute for the social divisions that in England, for example, overwhelmingly manifested themselves as the snobbery and inverted snobbery of pervasive class distinction. Protestantism gave Americans a code of manners. A state of mind. A mode of being. A political foundation. A national definition. And Bonnie Paisley is an heir of all that: a descendant of Presbyterians, an American creation, a child of her times, an atheistical spiritualist.

What, then, shall we call her? A Protestantizer, a manneristic Protestant, an example of the Protestantesque? Perhaps there’s nothing better than “post-Protestant,” a word that describes the natural result of American Protestantism thinning itself up so far that it loses all tethering in the specifics of the faith that gave it birth. Bonnie is a Poster Child--a living image for the post-Protestant moment in the history of American Protestant religion.

She’s hardly alone in this Protestant flight above Protestantism. An entire American social and cultural class has taken wing into that thin air, which is why, as I argue later in this book, Catholicism was pressed into novel and not entirely satisfactory service in our national debates: Something was going to fill the foundational spaces left by the ascended post-Protestants. But the first thing to remember is that there’s nothing alien about the post-Protestant phenomenon--and nothing foreign about these Poster Children. In origin, manner, and effect, they are very American. Very Mainline. And very, very Protestant.


We need a few more pictures than merely Bonnie’s if we are to understand her segment of American society. But before we add others to the portrait gallery, it may be helpful to set down a thesis as a guideline--to point out, as it were, the direction the next few chapters will take.

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