by Joseph Bottum
Random House, New York. 322 pages
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL PARKER
The neoconservative writer, and former editor of First Things, Joseph Bottum worries about the post-Protestant moment in which Americans now live. It is a moment marked by the collapse of mainline churches, which he believes to be the “great explanatory event from which follows nearly everything in our social political history” since the 1970s. Though a Roman Catholic, Bottum thoroughly embraces Alexis de Tocqueville’s mythic view that the United States is essentially a Protestant nation whose people’s character and destiny were “embodied in the first Puritan who landed on these shores, just as the whole human race was represented by the first man.”
The inheritors of the Puritan-to-mainline tradition are those whom Bottum calls the “Poster Children” of post-Protestantism. They are the I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious social class, a group that Bottum describes as well educated and existing at the lower end of the upper middle class. They have all the arrogance, judgmentalism and sense of moral superiority of their ancestors, but without the Christianity. They tend to be politically liberal, supporting legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, while their view of sin is generally historical rather than personal; hence they abhor past bigotries but shrug at divorce and children born out of wedlock.
The mainline churches played the vital role in American history of providing the moral vocabulary in which to frame the public discourse. They reached their statistical height around 1965 when well over 50 percent of Americans were members of a mainline church. Then, around 1975, their numbers began to plummet. Today only about 21 million Americans are members of a mainline church, less than 7 percent of the population. They continue to speak out prophetically on national issues, but their pronouncements – rather than being biblically based – are predictably indistinguishable from the liberal political agenda. Moreover, as Bottum writes of the United Church of Christ, “No one listens, no one minds, no one cares.”
To fill the rapidly expanding vacuum, evangelicals and Roman Catholics in the late 1970s joined forces. Evangelicals dropped the “life boat” theology made famous by Dwight Moody and entered the political arena as the newly christened Religious Right. Roman Catholics, who by this time had ceased to vote as ethnic-religious blocks, contributed their highly developed philosophy and specialized vocabulary: “Sanctity of life, just war theory, natural law, dignity of the person.” This unlikely duo, however, has proved untenable in the long run, especially since the priest scandals that broke in 2002 have squandered much of the moral authority of the Catholic Church. Besides, Bottum admits, Catholic vocabulary “remains simply too alien and too theologically dense to do for America what the mainline Protestant churches once did.” The result is that American democracy now lacks a strong religious tradition to provide its moral grounding.
Despite the weighty subject matter, Bottum has a light touch, filling his book with anecdotes and biographical sketches. His “Cassandra-like” conclusion, however, is a somber eulogy for the once great mainline churches. Their passing is especially to be lamented, for nothing can replace them, certainly not the nanny state or popular consumer culture. As for their successors, the morally untethered “poster children,” Bottum would keep a wary eye on these purveyors of a social gospel without the gospel.
MICHAEL PARKER is director of graduate studies and professor of church history at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.