The post-Protestants

The post-Protestants August 8, 2014

We have the post-moderns and the post-Christians; now we have the post-Protestants.  Referring mainly to post-mainline Protestants, these are the children of those liberal denominations who have preserved their parents’ self-righteousness, individualism, millennialism, and sense of being chosen–except without Jesus and any kind of Biblical faith.

Catholic author Joseph Bottum explores this new WASP establishment in a new book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.  After the jump, a link and an excerpt to a review of the book by Matt McCollough.

From Matt McCollough,  An Anxious Age | TGC | The Gospel Coalition:

In some ways the earliest chapters of the book reminded me of Bottum’s fellow Catholic writer of an earlier generation, Flannery O’Connor. She 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 also self-righteousness, 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.

These folks aren’t self-consciously religious, though they may consider themselves “spiritual.” They blame the Protestant Christianity of their parents for much of what’s worst in the world. But if they’ve cast off their parents’ theological and ecclesial commitments, they have inherited a robust confidence in their own “essential moral rightness” (13). In fact, without the work of Christ or the fellowship of the church to fall back on, their sense of moral enlightenment becomes all the more crucial. It’s how they know their lives are justified; it’s how they know they belong among those who “get it.”

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 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. . . .

He contends that the post-Protestants emerged to fill a void in American public life that opened with the collapse of mainline Protestantism. Until the 1960s–70s, Bottum argues, American society held together as a sort of three-legged stool—there was democracy in politics, capitalism in economics, and Protestantism in ethics. Protestant Christianity supplied a certain moral vision for the nation that helped support and held in check the contributions of democracy and capitalism to the American experiment. By celebrating America’s values and rebuking America’s failures, Protestant Christianity made sure that America followed a different course from the nations of Europe.

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. . . .

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” (70).

Second, Bottum highlights what J. Gresham Machen and Richard 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).

You can buy the book here.

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