Don’t miss Joseph Bottum’s reply, “American Hope: Don’t Conflate Political Culture and Christianity.” 

Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age is a bad book with a good book trapped inside it, struggling to get out. Bottum offers insightful observations that challenge prevailing assumptions about the nature and history of secular progressivism in America. Unfortunately, his main arguments are underdeveloped and disorganized, and the book’s appeal is limited by its prejudice against Protestantism. But the greatest disappointment is Bottum’s failure to practice the Christian virtue of hope.

Mainline, Secular, Catholic

Three theses dominate the book. The first is that mainline Protestant churches used to be the moral heart of American culture. They ran the gamut from Presbyterians to Baptists, and they didn’t always seem to be a coherent cultural force. But they were; they trained us in the moral virtues essential to our civilization and told us a coherent story of who we were and how we fit into the larger cosmic picture.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

The collapse of the mainline therefore explains the current decline of American civilization. It also explains why we are losing the vital capacity to love our country and criticize it at the same time—to love it critically and to criticize it lovingly. Without a moral center, our patriotism is becoming jingoistic and our reform movements are becoming resentful.

Other churches have always existed, of course, including Catholics and what we now call “evangelicals.” But these churches have always stood outside the center of American public identity. They can speak to American culture, but they lack the sociological standing to speak for American culture as the mainline once did.

The second thesis that dominates An Anxious Age is that while the mainline has collapsed institutionally, it lives on sociologically. The new secular class that rules most of the central structures of American culture is simply a de-Christianized continuation of mainline religion. Secular progressivism inherited its morality, metaphysics, and historical narratives from the social gospel movement that took over the mainline in the twentieth century.

The social gospel movement was dominated by a religious anxiety that secular progressivism has inherited—hence the book’s title. This anxiety manifests itself in the view that Americans are complacent in the face of innumerable evil forces surrounding us every day. Our nation floats comfortably atop a sea of poverty and wretchedness, oblivious to injustices past and present. Judgment and wrath are upon us as a people. But a chosen few can be saved: those who raise awareness, denounce the nation’s historical wrongs, and stand in opposition to demonic social structures like “corporate America.”

This understanding of the new secular class explains its behavior better than alternative hypotheses. It also explains why efforts to resist or ameliorate the cultural dominance of this class have failed so comprehensively: they have misunderstood the problem. Most simply fail to recognize that what we are struggling to come to grips with is not primarily a political philosophy (“progressivism”) or a rationally calculating interest group (“the elite”). Those are merely aspects of what is, at heart, a religious movement. And those who do recognize the religious nature of the new class tend to misinterpret it. They see its environmentalism and call it nature worship, or they see its technocracy and call it neo-Marxism.

The third thesis of the book is that the upheaval in American Catholic life after Vatican II had a devastating impact that went far beyond the ethical, theological, and ecclesiological disputes. The shared Catholic culture was disintegrated by the conflict. This culture was not primarily embodied in the doctrines or church offices that were the overt focus of controversy after Vatican II; it subsisted in a million tiny things that all Catholics used to say and do, which for the most part had no theological, political, or ethical importance. But the unintended side effect of the war over Vatican II was to destroy the sense that these little things held Catholics together.

While I agree with Bottum’s first two theses and think them vitally important, I cannot pretend to evaluate the validity of Bottum’s view of Catholic culture. He is not writing about its objective structures, but what it looks like from the inside. How would an evangelical like myself judge such matters?

But that doesn’t matter much. Bottum makes it abundantly clear that An Anxious Age is not written to be read by people like me anyway.

A Caricature of Protestant Religion

Bottum repeatedly asserts, but does not offer any argument or evidence for, a specific view of Protestantism. This view colors his entire analysis, but it is never defended; it is simply assumed that the audience shares it. It is not a serious theological critique of Protestantism, but a cartoon caricature of it.

Apparently the Washington Post is not the only place where people think evangelicals are “poor, uneducated and easily led.” To Bottum, all evangelical intellectual accomplishments are illusory, and even their commitment to justice is a transplant; evangelicals have no minds or consciences other than those Catholics have given them:

The typical new member of Congress after [the 2010] election was—to indulge a little reduction—a mildly successful businessman who attended an evangelical church, belonged to the Republican Party, and had been trained to speak quite confidently in a very alien, very Catholic vocabulary about such things as the sanctity of life, just war theory, natural law, and the dignity of the person.

Instances of such “indulgence” of “a little” reductionism are recurrent, and sometimes shockingly uncharitable, throughout the book.

Bottum’s sneers at evangelicalism arise from a deeper contempt for Protestant religion as such. Having uncritically assimilated Max Weber’s long-discredited account of Protestant theology and sociology, Bottum sees the religious anxiety of the social gospel movement as a natural product of Protestant religion (p. 73). Thus, the current downfall of American culture is merely the necessary historical consequence of Protestantism (p. 126).

As Bottum’s own evidence shows, the social gospel did not develop religious anxiety and hand it down to today’s secularism because it was following the natural direction of Protestant religion. Bottum describes, complete with damning original source quotations, how social gospel theology denied the power of the cross to save anyone. Yet he never explains why he doesn’t accept what would seem to be the theory best supported by these facts—namely, that the social gospel created religious anxiety precisely because it abandoned Protestant religion.

If Bottum made a serious case against Protestantism, providing argument and evidence, his book would be worth taking seriously. But Bottum is no Brad Gregory. He is simply tossing around unexamined prejudices.

A Failure of Hope

The book’s most important failure, however, is a failure of hope. Bottum has given up. A shared Catholic culture is slowly starting to grow again, he says, but not quickly enough for it to play an important role in the resolution of the current cultural crisis in America. And there are no other possibilities; there is nothing else that can save us. Bottum cannot even rouse himself to the kind of hard-boiled, determined pessimism that might make the book interesting (“America is dead; its time has passed”). He simply whimpers that he sees no hope.

It is a surprising failure. Bottum’s diagnosis of the malady ailing our culture cries out for the physician to prescribe massive doses of hope. When will a Christian turn to hope, if not in a book about a culture crippled by religious anxiety?

It is also an ironic failure. Bottum himself—unconsciously, perhaps—shows us again and again why we need hope and how we can live it out. You can see it in his critique of narrow-minded sociologists of religion, who will believe anything before they believe religion exerts an exogenous influence upon culture. You can see it in his portraits of young Catholics learning to live their faith in a way that can speak coherently to the secular class.

But you can especially see it in his magnificent chapter on John Paul II. Bottum takes us from the days Karol Wojtyla spent in January 1945 helping clear a gigantic pile of frozen-solid human excrement out of an abandoned seminary building in Cracow, using nothing but a trowel, to his triumphant return to Poland as pope, and beyond:

For anyone else, these two scenes would stand in contradiction: Once this man was so powerless that he was forced in the middle of a frozen January to clean open rooms that had been used as toilets, but later he was so powerful that thousands of people would have gladly died if he had only lifted his hand. For Karol Wojtyla, however, there seemed no contradiction at all. His minor tasks and his world importance were both demanded by the vocation to which God had called him. They were both involved with service and obedience. They were both the next thing that needed to be done.

As Bottum emphasizes time and again, John Paul refused to accept the narrow constraints of what appeared, superficially, to be possible—because of his hope:

That pair of features—his complete courage and his boundless energy—gave him enormous freedom, particularly when these features were combined with his conviction that there always exists a way to live in truth no matter how thin the merely possible seems. He was the freest man in the twentieth century.

John Paul saw the unseen layer of the world, and that is why he knew with certainty that the counsels of despair were wrong. By bearing witness to hope, he made the impossible possible.

He was willing to spend days on end chiseling human waste out of an abandoned seminary because that was what it took to prevent Soviet troops from marching in and claiming the building. His Christian hope told him that the structures of a culture will ultimately be occupied not by those who have more guns, but by those who do the hard and undignified work of clearing out the excrement. That hope did not put him to shame.

Poetry, not History, Sociology, Theology, or Political Philosophy

This book is a poem struggling to be a work of history, sociology, theology, and political philosophy. Its vices will be readily apparent to anyone who knows what history, sociology, theology, and political philosophy are supposed to look like. To say that the book is unsystematic would be a dreadful understatement. Worse, it is littered with historical claims that are contestable, or that will prompt a curious reader to further investigation, but it contains no footnotes or citations. How do I check whether the telling details in Bottum’s account of the 1976 Call to Action conference are accurate? Where do I go to find out more about the desperate effort to reclaim the Cracow seminary that brought Wojtyla to that giant pile of frozen excrement?

When judged as poetry, however, An Anxious Age reveals its virtues. I do not mean merely that the writing is good, although it is. There is a deeper poetry at work in An Anxious Age. A master poet confronts the chaotic storm of human experience and deftly selects just the right words to show its coherence and meaning. Bottum confronts the chaotic storm of American culture in the twentieth century and deftly selects—with the one great exception of his bias against Protestants—just the right sequence of events to show its coherence and meaning. As history or social science, the story he tells is a little too “just so,” a little too neat and tidy to be swallowed whole. As poetry, it sings.

But it sings more in spite of its author’s spirit than because of it. This book’s title is more descriptive of its author than our age. His interest in America’s religious anxiety appears to be a case of what the psychologists call “projection.” Perhaps Bottum hasn’t fully internalized his own critique of those narrow-minded sociologists of religion. Perhaps he lacks a strong enough faith to have hope. Or perhaps he just feels it’s beneath his dignity to join those of us who will spend the coming generation chiseling gigantic piles of excrement out of the abandoned buildings of American culture. But if God ever does kindle the spark of hope in Bottum’s heart, we’ve got a trowel waiting for him.