print logo
RSS FEED

The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The new elite class of America is the old one: America’s mainline Protestant Christians in both the glory and the annoyingness of their moral confidence and spiritual certainty. They just stripped out the Christianity along the way.

This article is based on a recent Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute.

Beginning with the abolition of slavery, the bitter battles of American political life have often been fought over spiritual issues. It’s hard to know, for example, what else Prohibition was about. And yet the great moralizing and spiritualizing of American politics feels different these days, more complete, more all-encompassing. It’s as though our public life were not a political stadium in which spiritual footballs sometimes appear; rather the field itself has become religious. Our public life is now a supernatural game and our purely political concerns have been reduced to nothing more than footballs with which we happen to play that public game of spiritual redemption.

Our anxious age often seems a moment more tinged by its spiritual worries than anytime in America since perhaps the 1730s. The nation’s unconscious spirituality is splashed across our supposedly secular life.

As it happens, we often fail to recognize the effect of the spiritual because history has led us to expect our national spirituality to be explicitly religious, tied to the nation’s churches. These new supernatural entities, or at least these new manifestations of the enduring human desire to perceive something supernatural in the world, have broken away from the theological understandings that would once have helped corral and tame them. We are like a people who dismiss ghosts as archaic, superstitious nonsense, even while we imagine that all around us are ectoplasmic projections of the dead we just happen not to call ghosts. Spirits and demons, angels and demigods, flitter through American public life.

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 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.

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. It is populated by Christian moral ideas set loose from the churches and the theological dogmas that once contained and controlled them. Victimhood, the all-American cult of niceness, the merging of social classes with social politics, they all derive in their way from what the novelist Flannery O’Connor once mocked as the Church of Christ without Christ.

For example, there’s a very interesting debate going on in some French intellectual circles about whether political correctness could possibly occur in any culture that wasn’t formerly Christian. Or perhaps even clearer, think of environmentalism. 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.

The real question, of course, is how and why this happened. How and why politics became a mode of spiritual redemption for nearly everyone in America, but especially for the college-educated upper-middle class, who are probably best understood not as the elite, but as the elect, people who know themselves as good, as relieved of their spiritual anxieties by their attitudes toward social problems.

Let’s start with the how. 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.

The high-water mark came about around 1965, when surveys showed that well over half the nation belonged to Protestant churches. Today membership in Protestant churches is under 30 million people in a nation of more than 300 million. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention alone has 16 million. The Catholic Church has 67 million. In other words, well under 10 percent of Americans today belong to the central churches of the Protestant mainline.

Their deepest awareness of sin derives from their sense of a shadowy evil that lies over the past, and over much of the present as well.

Think of the American experiment, as Tocqueville urged us to do or taught us to do. Think of it as a three-legged stool, its stability found in each leg’s relation to the other legs. Democracy grants some participation, a national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and shortsightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it too always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needs for its own flourishing.

Meanwhile, religion provides narrative and meaning, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of this world, but it tilts too toward hegemony and conformity.

For most of American history, these three legs of democracy, capitalism, and Protestant religion accommodated one another and at the same time pushed hard against one another. There’s a temptation to call America’s Protestant Christianity the most accommodating religion the world has ever seen. But again and again, the churches managed to withstand the politics and the economics of the age. Indeed, what made them good at accommodation was also what made them good at opposition. In the multiplicity of its nominations, Protestantism could influence the nation in churchly ways without actually being a single church, without being a single source of religious authority constantly tempted to reach for a central political and economic goal.

The general complex of the major Protestant denominations remained for nearly 300 years a great river at the heart of American public life. It was a messy thing, true enough, meandering in enormous loops and switchbacks, changing course from time to time, rising and falling. Nevertheless, everyone knew that Protestantism for what it was, our cultural Mississippi rolling through the center of the American landscape. And even the nation’s Catholics and Jews understood that they lived along its banks.

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.

Somewhere in the 1970s, the water began to run shallow. And by the 1990s, the central channel of American mainline Protestantism was almost dry. The river dried up and was swallowed by the earth, the unity lost. And the question for the sociological observer of the American scene today is what happened to the people who once belonged to those churches? What happened, for that matter, to their children? Some of them, particularly in the 1970s, fled to one side of mainline Protestantism to become Evangelicals, while others took to the opposite side, joining the Catholic Church. And for several years, thoughtful religious leaders argued for a new merging — again, vague but vast — of Evangelicals and Catholics to take the place of the failing mainline churches in American public life. It didn’t happen.

By the election of 2008, most serious political analysts could see that the Evangelicals were in decline both in numbers and as a coherent social force, while Catholicism remains simply too alien and too theologically dense to do for America what the mainline Protestant churches had done.

The failure to achieve a new synthesis, however, derives most of all from the simple fact that an enormous number, an entire social class of American Protestants became neither Evangelicals, nor Catholics. They simply stopped being Christian believers, even while they kept the assurance of their Protestant parents that they represented the center of American culture.

This is where the mainline went. And many members of this new class are entirely representative, educated with a postgraduate degree, churchless, successful, somewhat fragile in their finances, and utterly confident about the essential moral rightness of their social and political opinions.

The members of this new class are often dubbed the “elite” by recent commentators, particularly conservatives. The term, however, obscures more than it reveals. For one thing, even at their most successful, they typically cling to the lower edge of the upper middle class, which is hardly the elite of American monetary power. Even more, however, calling them elite ignores the moral anxiety that helped create their self-understanding. They are not elite in the material sense. Far better to understand them as the elect in the spiritual sense, people as reflective of the religious condition of their time as any of their Christian ancestors were in ages past.

An entire social class of American Protestants became neither Evangelicals, nor Catholics. They simply stopped being Christian believers.

Over the past 50 years or so, these post-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.

Well under 10 percent of Americans today belong to the central churches of the Protestant mainline.

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.

Sin, in other words, appears as a social fact and the redeemed personality becomes confident of its own salvation by being aware of that fact, by knowing about and rejecting the evil that darkens society.

The new elite class of America is the old one: America’s mainline Protestant Christians in both the glory and the annoyingness of their moral confidence and spiritual certainty. They just stripped out the Christianity along the way.

Through the long centuries after the Middle Ages, the combination of liberal Protestantism and scientific materialism and the bureaucracies of the new nation-states and capitalism — what Max Weber called the elective affinities that produced modernity — their effect was to slowly drain Western civilization of its metaphysical density. Devils, specters, ghosts, elves, magic, all fading away. The disenchantment of the world, Weber called it, borrowing a phrase from the poet Schiller. And by the late 1800s, most educated Americans probably had no strong belief in any supernatural entities beyond the bare Christian minimum of the individual soul below and God above.

Our world is filled with bastard Christianities, on both the Left and the Right. It is populated by Christian moral ideas set loose from the churches and the theological dogmas that once contained and controlled them.

The otherworldly genius of the nation, however, would not leave it so. Over the last 100 years, America’s metaphysical realm has been gradually repopulated with social and political ideas elevated to the status of strange divinities, a scientifically acceptable re-enchantment and supernatural thickening of reality born of the ancient religious hunger to perceive more in the world than just the give and take of ordinary human beings, but adapted to an age that piously congratulates itself on its escape from many of the strictures of ancient piety.

Our problem is the post-Protestant class which understands the world this way has now, at last, assumed its place at what it believes is the mainstream of American life, driving all others out from the public square as figures endarkened by evil. If the price to be paid is the end of politics and the transfer of earthly governance to a supernatural field, so be it. In their broad moral concerns, in their overbearing self-righteousness, in their rediscovery of anti-Catholicism, in their motivations derived from spiritual anxiety, these people are their mainline Protestant grandparents.

Even while they’re a little more spiritual than those grandparents, they stripped out the Christianity along the way, which means they never have to hear an occasional sermon on hypocrisy or attend church with social classes other than their own — but otherwise, they are the same people as their grandparents. The Protestant ascendancy has returned.

What will remain distinctive in American culture as these divisions work themselves out politically and socially? What will we be if we are not the ones Abraham Lincoln called this almost chosen people?

But, to use William James’ wonderful old metaphor, not the dead wires, but only the live wires of possible belief carry enough electricity to make them practical choices at any given moment. Our current spiritual links and anxieties and spiritual rewards are the only ones on offer at the level of the social order. In every age, even our own, they shape us and move us and give us the modes of our being, whether we know it or not.

Joseph Bottum is author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

FURTHER READING: Henry Olsen writes "Setting the Record Straight About the White Working Middle Class," Ambassador Francis Rooney contributes "The Global Vatican: A Supra-National Force for Good," and Mark Rodgers and Jedd Medefind contend "Conservatism Is Compassionate." Eric Kauffman explains "The Future Will Be More Religious and Conservative Than You Think."

 

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

 

Most Viewed Articles

How Risky Is It to Be Uninsured? By Christopher J. Conover 07/23/2014
Our hodgepodge of efforts to help the uninsured have substantially reduced the incentive to buy ...
Big Data: Here to Stay, but with Caveats By Edward Tenner 07/30/2014
Criticism of big data is due to three paradoxes. For starters, it's ubiquitous but hard to define.
Are Rising Health Care Costs Creating a Retirement Crisis? By Andrew G. Biggs 07/26/2014
Progressives are proposing expensive expansions of Social Security, but the retirement crisis is ...
It's Time for Real Reform of Veterans' Health By Joseph Antos 07/31/2014
The Miller-Sanders bill addresses the immediate crisis, but underlying structural defects must be ...
No Free Lunch for the ECB By Desmond Lachman 07/25/2014
The IMF is urging the ECB to implement massive quantitative easing, but such a course of action is ...
 
AEI