An Anxious Age
The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America
By Joseph Bottum
320 pages, $25 (hardcover)
Image Books, 2014
To order: imagecatholicbooks.com
Joseph Bottum, the former editor of First Things magazine and a top-flight observer of the American religious scene, has written an intriguing book entitled An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.
This book is not an easy read, but worth the trouble in order to understand the collapse of America as a largely Protestant country with a Catholic minority. In its place, we see a nation that seems to be following the once largely Christian Europe into what one can call practical atheism, i.e., people may believe in God, but he plays no important role in day-to-day living in worship or morality.
The first part of the book details how all of this happened, mostly by tracing the thought and effects of various intellectuals such as Walter Rauschenbusch and William James, who began the process that turned traditional Protestant religion into a quest for social justice rather primarily worship of the Creator, moral living and personal witness and evangelization.
Bottum intersperses his history (to my mind, unnecessarily) with descriptions of people he knows to show how they are affected in the present day by the teachings of these Protestant revolutionizers of the 1800s and early 1900s in the United States.
For Catholic readers, however, Bottum hits his stride when giving a masterly brief history of American Catholicism from the 1940s up to the present. In Chapter 10, he focuses on arguably our nation’s greatest Catholic theologian, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit.
Cardinal Dulles, who converted to Catholicism (as a student at Harvard), was born into one of those old blue-blood Protestant families who reared their children in lessons of leadership and noblesse oblige (reinforced by prep schools and Ivy League colleges) to steer organizations, hold political office and in general rule the country.
Bottum also profiles William F. Buckley as the lay counterpart to Dulles in his influence on the laity. He then proceeds to describe the tumultuous history of the post-Conciliar Church in the U.S., the election of John Paul II and his impact on America, and the devastating priest sex scandal.
Bottum concludes with descriptions of the new Catholicism in the U.S. and the dying of the mainline Protestant churches — taking with them the old consensus about national morality and creating a new class of “Post-Protestants” hungry for political and social impact and certainty about their salvations. We call them “evangelicals.”
At the same time, a majority of cradle Catholics felt that the Catholic Church itself was a thing in decline as the political power of the ethnic enclave faded, the moral authority of its bishops was dissipated and the culture that once produced the 1950s Catholic literary renaissance was lost beyond recall.
Bottum finishes with a short and insightful description of the impact of St. John Paul II, who clearly represents for the author that there is great hope for the Church in America. This book is well worth the read, but budget a good amount of time to do so. If only Bottum had been able to include his first thoughts and observations of Pope Francis. But that must wait for another volume.
Father C. John McCloskey is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.