Impressionistic, idiosyncratic, Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America swoops and veers like the Capistrano swallows he takes as one of the book’s organizing metaphors. While its concern is sociology, the book is not sociological, but essayistic, an extended meditation, an unhappy survey of intitutional failure and spiritual loss, conducted by an eye also keen enough to catch the glimmers of hope amidst the wreckage.
The book is comprised of two parts. In the first part Bottum asserts that the key fact about American politics and culture today is the collapse, over the last half-century, of mainline Protestantism. In the second part he describes the unsuccessful attempts of American Catholicism to fill that void.
Naturally, then, the question at the heart of the book is: is it good for the Jews?
I kid, mostly. Yet the book opens with Bottum’s case study of a typical post-Protestant, a twice-divorced psychologist who lives in Oregon and whom he calls Bonnie. While her mother’s family “were once Scotch-Irish pillars of the First Presbyterian Church,” Bonnie is Jewish on her father’s side.
Is that last detail significant? Before we take up that question, let’s see what makes Bonnie a typical post-Protestant American. According to Bottum, it is that in her progressive politics and cultural habits she has retained the moral censuriousness and metaphysical anxiety of Protestantism, but without the Christian belief. Bonnie, with her environmentalism and meticulously remodeled house and “utter confiden[ce] about the essential moral rightness of her social and political opinions” is certainly a familiar type today. Bottum explains that she represents an outlook that is
Christian in the righteous timbre of its moral judgments, without any actual Christianity; middle class in social flavor, while ostensibly despising middle-class norms; American in cultural setting, even as she believes American history is a tale of tyranny from which she and those like her have barely managed to escape.
Though she does not know it, Bonnie and countless liberal Americans like her are the spiritual descendants of the Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, whose 1917 lectures, A Theology for the Social Gospel, articulated the progressive direction mainline Protestantism was to take in the decades ahead. Rauschenbusch preached a Christianity devoted to doing battle with “six social sins”—“bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression”—and he gave these sins a powerful, indeed frightening sense of reality. They are the presence of Satan in the world, and stand between human beings and salvation.
Generations later, the Bonnies of the world have retained the deep “awareness of sin” and the pressing “need to see themselves as good people,” but without the gospel part of the social gospel.
In their view, the social forces of bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression are the constant themes of history. These horrors have a palpable, almost metaphysical presence in the world. And the post-Protestants believe 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. . . . By knowing about, and rejecting, the evil that darkens society.
Rather than focus on how religion has been corrupted by progressive politics, Bottum insists that we view contemporary progressivism as a fundamentally religious, or at least spiritual, condition.
This certainly helps explain the fervor which drives so much of progressive politics as well as its concern to root out what it sees as sin. If anything, the witch-hunts undertaken by liberals today resemble medieval crusades more than the complacent twentieth-century mainline.
Coming back to Jewish concerns, Bottum’s approach also explains something of many mainline churches’ growing anti-Israelism. They have come to see Israel and Zionism as precisely the kind of evil in the world against which they define themselves–theirs is not a political assessment but a reflexive shudder.
But what about Bonnie’s Jewishness? She may be a typical post-Protestant. Is she also a typical post-Jew?
Bottum notes that the post-Protestants are not always former Protestants. Jews, Catholics, and other unchurched (or un-synagogued) non-Protestants, he notes, “have contributed their share” to this group. Nevertheless, while “a lingering sense of ethnic background confuses the class identification a little,” such Jews (and others) are participating in an essentially American Protestant phenomenon.” While a few generations ago “Jews might have risen in social class by becoming Protestants,” today these post-Jews acculturate and become post-Protestants.
This seems to apply well to the assimilated Jewish population of Bonnies who have little or no connection with any Jewish community. But what about the Jewish progressives who flaunt their Jewishness and see progressive politics as central to their Jewish identity? The “tikkun olam” Jews, Occupy Judaism Jews, Jews for Obama, etc.? Is this simply an instance of assimilation into an American Protestant current?
Bottum’s description of the hollowed-out mainline churches—their aging populations, declining levels of ritual practice, and substitution of progressive politics for traditional theology—is as descriptive of non-orthodox Judaism as it is of Protestantism. And, as Bottum notes, the increasing liberalization of mainline Protestantism has flattened out denominational identity. Liberal Christians of any denomination may feel more in common with each other, despite denominational differences, than they will with more traditionalist Christians, while
[s]erious, believing Presbyterians, for example, now typically feel that they have more in common with serious, believing Catholics and Evangelicals—with serious, believing Jews, for that matter—than they do, vertically, with the unserious, unorthodox members of their own denomination.
It is relevant to note that the recent Pew survey of American Jews, when it comes to political and social attitudes, basically shows two American Judaisms, one orthodox, one non-orthodox (with orthodoxy in further subdivided between modern and ultra-orthodox Jews on a number of issues). Politically speaking, non-orthodox Jews, whether “post” or not, tend to resemble each other and other liberal Americans more than they do orthodox Jews.
So Jewish readers will recognize in the non-orthodox Jewish world a good many features of the picture Bottum paints of Protestant and post-Protestant America. In the Jewish case, however, the ethnic difference Bottum nods to has more salience. Protestants and post-Protestants may have embraced a social gospel theology and then de-theologized it as part of their separation from the fundamentalist varieties of their churches. Jews, however, often come by their progressivism in other ways. True, Christian social gospel is part of this picture, especially, I would guess, in the case of Reform Judaism, which has had a longer and closer relationship with Protestantism. Yet Jewish leftism has other sources: the leftist heritage from Eastern Europe and socialist America; the fashioning, by immigrants and their American descendents, of modern Jewish identity as a kind of ethnic leftism and minority consciousness; the roiling compulsion to universalism and world-transformation that have marked much modern Jewish politics. This often comes across as more messianic than mainline.
And what about the second part of the book? What lessons might Bottum’s depiction of American Catholicism (his swallows of Capistrano) hold for for Jews and Judaism today?
Here, although American Catholicism has an ethnic component that might seem akin to Judaism, the real lessons seem to me not to be direct similarities between the two religions and their experiences in America but rather cautionary advice about what makes religion a source of resilience and strength and what makes it brittle and weak.
I was especially struck by the chapter entitled “A Room With A View,” in which Bottum focuses attention on a rather tragic irony. Catholic intellectuals of the 1960s generation were so concerned to make Catholicism relevant to the modern world that they spent most of their time gazing inwardly at the Church’s supposed faults, ills, and inadequacies. Bottum juxtaposes that generation with earlier generations of Catholic intellectuals who, confident in the intellectual foundations of their Church, were able to turn outward to the world. “[L]iberal Christians of all denominations imagined in the 1960s and 1970s that they were expanding and opening up their faith to the world,” observes Bottum. Yet, sadly, he finds that “[t]he claim that Catholics must be more outward-looking eventually forces them to be more inward-looking; the demand that Catholics struggle with the world ends up making them struggle with the Church.”
This is an observation that Jews should ponder. American Jews are often concerned about their religion’s insularity, and are animated by the felt need to make the tradition “relevant.” Yet the desire to reconstruct, reform, open, or renew Judaism often results in more, not less parochialism. It puts the focus on what Judaism needs to be, on how to improve it, on why one version of it is superior to another, on the exercise of stretching it again and again like taffy to fit the latest mold.