Joseph Bottum is a ‘Catholic intellectual’ and a former editor of First Things. His book An Anxious Age (a title playing off Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age) discusses the collapse of mainline Protestantism in the US, and the attempt to replace that moral voice with modern Catholicism, a project he decides has failed, leaving the US like a three-legged stool that is missing a leg. He argues that what is wrong with America comes down to spirituality, and other problems are symptomatic of a spiritual crisis. He also suggests that middle class liberals have inherited the moral indignation previously shown by Protestants. These Liberals in effect act like the elect of Calvinistic American Puritanism, and channel their spiritual energies into causes not usually described as such, like environmentalism.
The author enters into that huge field of argument about whether America is built on Christian foundations (he believes it is), and indeed the kind of Enlightenment philosophy the Founders espoused was certainly built on Christian principles, even if they also, crucially, deviated in significant ways. (Therein lies the problem of the ‘were they or were they not Christian?’ arguments.) Bottum argues that these values have been watered down and abandoned by much of America due to mainstream Protestantism’s embrace of liberal Christianity, a socially reforming, supernatural-avoiding version of faith, epitomised by theologians such as Walter Raschenbusch (below). Bottum laments all this, but there is also a certain schadenfreude here too.
Bottum writes well, in accessible style, with jokey phrases, and a pervasive sarcasm. It’s easy to get taken in by his arguments, but they are nevertheless not rock solid. For example, has religion really been a brake on capitalism as he suggests? In the case of the robber barons? Was the frontier a religious place? Much of what he says is true to a certain extent – both his praise of a Christian inheritance and his criticism of baby boomer liberalism. But by his reading, everything was working pretty much fine until the mid century when people abandoned faith and common sense. That is probably not how Native Americans and African Americans would read it. The kind of social fracture of the 60s happened because despite what America was supposed to be, racism and other inequalities persisted, and Americans went military adventuring, particularly in Vietnam. Christianity, apart from being the basis of the Civil Rights movement, didn’t seem to have much impact, and in fact seemed to contribute much of the time to the status quo.
Bottum also takes some cheap shots, at Barack Obama, who is simply ‘pro-abortion’ Obama (as if that is the only moral issue), and theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who is apparently ‘preaching to the choir’ when he says Christianity can’t and shouldn’t be part of the dominant American culture as the two are fundamentally different. Hauerwas is not talking to a long-past reality, his point is not that the churches are a dominant cultural force in the US, it is that they should not think they should be, holding a faith that constantly questions, rather than upholds as Bottum contends, mainstream views.
But Bottum’s main problem is his America-centrism. He, amongst many others, believes in American exceptionalism – that the nation is a light on the hill, and should be, an attitude that simply sweeps too much under the carpet.