The talent promoter Lela Rogers (mother of the great Hollywood dancer Ginger Rogers) once complained that Clifford Odets’s 1944 film None But the Lonely Heart couldn’t seem good to a genuine, God-fearing American—because the movie was just too gloomy.
In certain contexts, that might have been an interesting sociological observation about the dominant mood of national culture and Americans’ sense of the proper purposes of art. Unfortunately, Mrs. Rogers delivered her complaint during her 1947 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a context that cast a somewhat different light on discussions of what was and wasn’t American. Still, as the wonderful and sadly neglected critic Robert Warshow remarked the next year in Partisan Review, the line was illuminating in its way. She may have been “insensitive enough to carry her philistinism to its conclusion,” he wrote, but “one knew immediately what Mrs. Rogers was talking about.”
What Mrs. Rogers was talking about, of course, was the upbeat tone Americans seemed to require from their cultural productions. In the mind of Abraham Lincoln, the deep roots of the nation flowered in profound observations about Americans as an “almost-chosen people.” Planted in less-fertile soil, the roots generated only sad, droopy-leafed grumbling about how un-American it is not to mouth the platitudes of all-day, permanent happiness. In far too many cases, however, an interesting conflation had taken place, as the national self-understanding tied the mood of Christian optimism to bubbly belief in the nation’s social ethos: If you’re not hopeful about something in American culture, well, then you’re not much of an American—and not much of a Christian, either.
I feel as though I shouldn’t have to say that, personally, I’m a hopeful man. I hope for my salvation through Jesus Christ, and I have hope that aspects of American culture will improve. (What besides a nearly mad hopefulness could have sustained me through the decades now that I have raged against abortion? Or, for that matter, through the weirdly vicious battles over New Formalism in American poetry?) The only thing I don’t have is a conflation of those two hopes: I can’t imagine my Christianity depends on my birth certificate. I don’t think my faith derives from my cultural politics. I have never supposed that less-than-upbeat observations of the American scene were a mistrust of God.
Nonetheless, the Protestant writer Greg Forster—reviewing here at Public Discourse my new book, An Anxious Age—has accused me of an un-Christian lack of hope in American culture. A weakness of Christian faith, as well. And when Forster combines such accusations with doubts about what he calls the “sociological standing” of believers, he sets before us a fascinating and complex knot of national history and national culture. Having been invited by the editor to respond, I thought the challenge should be taken up.
The challenge seems particularly acute when, reviewing a book about the cultural impact of the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches, Forster’s essay is subtitled: “Why bother with American culture? Bottum recommends despair.” I’m not sure where exactly in An Anxious Age he imagines I recommend any such thing. By such logic, T.S. Eliot is a recommender of the civilizational destruction he chronicles in The Waste Land, Goethe a cheerleader for Mephistopheles, and Dante a proponent of Hell. Still, however inartfully expressed, one knows immediately what Forster is talking about. He’s a modern Mrs. Rogers, and he builds from this supposed recommendation of cultural despair to what he says is “most important”—the section headed “A Failure of Hope”: my failure to hold one of the central Christian virtues.
On its face, this is an extraordinary accusation, even granting him the old-fashioned American conflation of cultural mood and Christianity. It should have been possible to put his complaint without indulging the hoary tropes of traditional anti-Catholicism—and I wish he had tried, for I don’t suppose that Forster is actually an anti-Catholic bigot. He seems to admire John Paul II, as far as that goes. But this is the complex knot of which I was speaking. Into questions about Christianity and culture in America, the long years have layered other questions. Questions about how a Catholic lacks “a strong enough faith,” for example. Questions about the ways in which an insidious “author’s spirit” pervades a Catholic’s work. Questions about whether God will “kindle the spark of hope” in a Catholic’s heart.
Ah, well. As I said, even while he raises such questions, I don’t think that Forster means to rehearse the antique lines of old American anti-Catholicism. He’s merely insensitive enough to allow his Americanist theology to run unnoticed down its traditional channels to its logical conclusion in demanding unceasing expressions of cultural optimism as proof of Christian hope. He clearly thinks the nation has gone astray; in fact, he picks up my image of the young Karol Wojtyła chipping frozen excrement out of abandoned rooms to use as a metaphor for his own cultural labor—so much more worthy than mine, he claims. But however fetid the houses now seem to him, Forster still lives in Mrs. Rogers’s neighborhood. He wants to whistle while he works, and he demands that everyone else whistle his tune, too, on pain of being declared hopeless un-Christians if they don’t.
One of the major themes of An Anxious Age is the way old Mainline Protestant ideas and manners have been translated into a supposedly secular age, joined by an argument that strange socio-metaphysical entities have been set free by the collapse of the Mainline churches to find new homes in cultural politics. Every day, the news seems to bring proof of my book’s thesis at work on the Left—as Mozilla’s co-founder Brendan Eich is chased out of his own company for the sin of insufficient atonement, and the multitalented writer Steven Hayward is hounded in Colorado for the crime of heresy, his political conservatism redefined by his academic community as hate speech.
But what about elsewhere? I won’t question Forster’s Christian faith, although he feels quite comfortable questioning mine: “Perhaps [Bottum] lacks a strong enough faith to have hope,” he writes in an amazingly offensive passage. Really? This is what we’re reduced to? The pattern I trace in An Anxious Age is apparently finding a home in other corners of the world, as well: only political culture is valid culture. Only in the American political realm is religious faith made manifest—and only while one ceaselessly expresses an upbeat can-do optimism about the political effect of political work on a checklist of particular political topics. Mrs. Rogers’s litmus test isn’t just used on works of art anymore. It’s applied everywhere now, with the demand that one constantly display both the correct views and the correct public mood about those views.
This is an ugly development. If, in order to continue the culture wars, we have to make proof of Christian faith dependent on politics and a willful attitude about politics, are the culture wars worth fighting?
Perhaps so, but I wouldn’t bet my soul on it. In recent years, I have been interested primarily in extra-political ways to move culture. Through short stories and experiments in non-fiction writing techniques, to some degree, together with the revisionist account of history I attempt in An Anxious Age and an effort to define a new “mysticism of small things” for the re-enchantment of perceived reality.
But most of all, through prayer, especially with the help of the Blessed Virgin—which is one reason I’m currently sketching out ideas for a new book about the Rosary as a medicine for the neutral diagnosis of culture I explicitly wrote I was undertaking in An Anxious Age. For that matter, my most recent poetry collection contains a Provençal-style cantiga to Christ’s mother—which ends, in the deliberately final words of the collection:
Bright virgin blue to brush the dawn, the sun rising now to show an ancient dark withdrawn: The world is witness. It whispers holy things of nature fallen and new grace that springs. . . . I’ve wasted words on kings and a thousand petty things. . . . And still the Western Wind will spring when she calls. Still her tears are the cold east rain that falls. I’ve learned, at last, I owe to Mary all my song.
I realize that belief in the efficacy of such things won’t satisfy some. How could it, when they want to question whether I have enough faith at all? An image of Mary’s blue as the color of the sky right before sunrise—what has that to with the culture wars? In fact, a great deal more than one might suppose. Still, a forced smile and a Mrs. Rogers optimism about Americanist politics: I just don’t feel enough anxiety to fake it. A calm hope in Christ Jesus and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin seems enough to be going on with.
Joseph Bottum is a writer in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A #1-bestselling Amazon author, he is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Houston Baptist University for Spring 2014. His most recent book is An Anxious Age.