Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Get comfortable being dismissed as bigots"

Matt McCullough, "Book Reviw: An Anxious Age, by Joseph Bottom" (9Marks, 2014):
An Anxious Age—the latest from Catholic essayist and pundit Joseph Bottum—is a book about the religious dimension of American public life. And it’s about the rise of a social class with an outsized influence on the shape of American culture, a group he calls post-Protestants.

... In some ways the earliest chapters of the book reminded me of Bottum’s fellow Catholic writer of an earlier generation, Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor is known in part for her distinctive ability to make Protestant self-righteousness come to life, especially its rural southern variety. Bottum’s focus is self-righteousness too, but not among the usual suspects. His focus is not the right wing religious fundamentalists of O’Connor’s rural Georgia, but the left-leaning, city-dwelling, well-educated and well-off descendants of the social gospelers.

... Conservative pundits have referred to this class as the new “elites.” But Bottum’s main argument is that we’d understand them better if we see them as they see themselves. “They do not feel themselves elite in any economic or political sense of real personal power. What they do feel is that they are redeemed” (130). They’re set apart as a class by their ability to recognize and personally reject the forces of evil—especially bigotry, militarism, oppression, and (sexual) repression. And they enjoy a calm assurance that they’re insiders to a better world coming just around the corner. They saw a vote for Obama in 2008 as an important step toward that new world. And they move closer to that world every time they buy a pair of Tom’s shoes or tote their organic groceries in reusable bags.

... Mainline Protestantism lost its place as America’s moral center in the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s. But Bottum argues the crippling damage was done long before the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, or legalized abortion. In Bottum’s account, the figure who best represents what happened to Mainline Protestantism and best explains the shape of post-Protestant sensibilities is Walter Rauschenbusch.

... whether nor not Rauschenbusch was as influential as claimed here, Bottum’s insight into his thought and into its implications for the Mainline and for post-Protestants is one of the book’s chief contributions. Two points are especially important.

First, according to Bottum Rauschenbusch redefined sin and redemption. Sin is not an offense against God but an anti-social force, “the evil of bigotry, power, corrupt law, the mob, militarism, and class contempt” (66). Redemption is not peace with God by faith in Christ, but “essentially an attitude of mind,” a “personal, interior rejection” of the forces of evil in society (66). To quote Rauschenbusch, this “redeemed personality” is the “fundamental contribution of every man” to what he called the “progressive regeneration of social life” (quoted on p. 70). [Guy Noir: "This sounds very much like lines from any number of papal encyclicals!"]

Second, Bottum highlights what Machen and Niebuhr recognized about the social gospel, what ultimately undermined the usefulness of Mainline Protestantism, and what put the “post” in the post-Protestant class: Rauschenbusch’s view of sin and salvation left little room for Jesus. Jesus’ teaching may have clarified the nature of evil and the kingdom of righteousness. But, in Bottum’s excellent image, “Christ seems to be only the ladder with which we climbed to a higher ledge. And once there, we no longer need the ladder” (67).

... This is not the book I would recommend if you want a full sense of 20th century American religious history. And for an account of the lost influence of Christianity in American public life, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion is more comprehensive and—I believe—more compelling. But An Anxious Age is an enjoyable and engaging read, thought provoking even where it isn’t fully convincing.

Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.

Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). [Oh that Rome would seem to take religion more seriously than placating and policies]. The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway. [emphasis Guy Noir's]
[Hat tip to JM]

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