Post-Protestantism’s Anxious Age: A Conversation with Joseph Bottum
February 23, 2015
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
Joseph Bottum is one of the nation’s most widely published and influential essayists. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He’s the former literary editor of The Weekly Standard and editor-in-chief of First Things. He holds a PhD in medieval philosophy. His most recent work, and the topic of our conversation today, is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Jodi Bottum, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Dr. Bottom, in your new book, The Anxious Age, you describe this post-Protestant era, but you are really talking about the fact that it remains resolutely a spiritual age, even when people believe it to be quite secular.
Bottum: Right. I think one of the mistakes that we make is we think that the current elite class of America has fallen into godlessness and antispirituality. There are reasons that we think this, of course because the Christian churches in all of their forms are under attack. There are reasons that we think this, because the elite class has turned so resolutely against the morality of Christianity. There are reasons that we think this, because Christianity is suffering. I wanted to look at the elite class of America, you know, among other things, with sympathy and ask, “How do they see themselves?” I realized that, in fact, they are profoundly spiritual, that we make a mistake when we try and say, “You can’t live your life without some kind of spirituality, some kind of reference to these superior moralities and the truth of the universe.” In fact, these people do live their lives in that way. They are the inheritors of generations of mainline Protestantism in this country. They are from the same class, and they occupy the same space that mainline Protestantism once occupied in this country. They just stripped Jesus out of it. Along the way, they see themselves as morally good and engaged in a high spiritual project, however much they would shy from words that express that.
Mohler: You know, when I was reading your book, which I just enjoyed extremely, I was struck at several points by the fact that someone could make almost the opposite argument and end up in the same point. If you are using certain definitions of secularization, you are actually affirming that that’s exactly what happened – the evacuation of theological claims of their theological content and the transformation of religion into something that is all this worldly, rather than other worldly. But, you really have kind of turned that on its head. You do write very sympathetically of the elites. They’re still very spiritual, and they have now transformed that spirituality directed in very different channels.
Bottum: I think that’s exactly right. This is one of the reasons that the kind of Chestertonian argument that so many of our friends love, this kind of atheism contradicts itself and pointing out the ways the whole modern project has come undone, has no purchase on these people. It has no purchase on them because they don’t actually think of themselves in that way. They think of themselves as occupying a morally and spiritually superior place. In one point of the book, I say that they participate in the great unspeakable thought that it is somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.
Mohler: You cite, as a matter of fact, some folks who speak of speak of the adversary class, and others who do that in terms of class analysis. There is a very clear theological opposition to historic truth claims of Christianity. Yet, as your saying, many of the structures of Christian thought, in terms of morality and even sorts of spiritual expressions, just find themselves in this class – the Poster Children. They are redefined in very secular and moralistic terms in that sense.
Bottum: We’ve been trying to explain the elite class in America for a considerable time now. This was the project, after all, of James Burnham, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch. Many people have gone back to look at the Yugoslavian communist to explain the ways in which the class creates new property values in its own possession of the superior offices of culture. We’ve gone around and around and around this question of the elite class in America for a long time, because it’s a fascinating question. My own analysis is that these people are who they have always been. They’re the great grandchildren and the grandchildren of the Episcopalians. They occupy the same moral space in their minds. Peter Berger, the great sociologists of religion and many other things, once had a joke back in the 1960s that went “Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Episcopalians each are about two percent of the population. Guess which one of these does not think of itself as a minority?” The joke was that the Episcopalians, even though they were quite small, considered themselves the elite center of the culture.
I point out in the book that the Episcopalian Church, the Anglican form of Christianity in America, has a possession of an architectural deposit that’s probably unrivaled by any other organization in this country. They have gorgeous churches and property, because it’s where the money was. At the same time, I see that tone in our elite class, whether they come directly from Protestantism or not, whether they are post-Church Protestant or post-Mass Catholics. They come to occupy this space that’s very high Episcopalian in tone.
Mohler: I thought of another book as I was reading your book, another book I greatly enjoy recently, Gregg Herken’s book The Georgetown Set. It was about the Alsop brothers, those friends and rivals in Cold War Washington. You read that and that picture of the 1940s, 50s, and even the 60s in America, and everyone that anyone knew in these circles seemed to be Episcopalian, with the odd Catholic intellectual thrown in. The Episcopalian were the Brahman class; there’s just no doubt about it.
Bottum: There was a letter from a man I find fascinating, although I think he’s faded a little bit from American historical imagination. This is Bishop Pike, the Episcopalian Bishop of California in the 1960s. He was baptized a Catholic as a child. He’s a lawyer working for the government in Washington, D.C. when he converts to Episcopalianism. He went to seminary and emerged as a star. His rise is meteoric. He becomes Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and then Bishop of California. He writes a letter in the 1940s to his mother. He’s a young lawyer in Washington, D.C. He says to her, “Everyone in our social class here is an Episcopalian.” He tells her that in explanation for why he’s going to convert from Catholicism to Episcopalianism.
Mohler: I really appreciated you citing that letter and pointing back to Bishop Pike, because many people who look at the theological radicalism of the Episcopal Church have to reminded that in the fifties and sixties they had bishops who already announced they didn’t believe in God. I got that. I really appreciated the way you drew in people like John Foster Dulles, pointing out that the future Secretary of State and the father of a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was also the defense attorney for Henry Emerson Fosdick in his heresy trial. This was a very small group of very connected, powerful people.
Bottum: Avery’s maternal grandfather founded the American Theological Association. There was a tight-knit world there that included theologians. Avery’s father first came to public notice as a specialist, as something other than just a powerful New York lawyer. He was a specialist in foreign policy when he chaired the Federal Council of Churches Peace Commission investigating Japan’s invasion of Manchuria before World War II. He was closely tied to that old world of American blue bloods, who were deeply and profoundly Protestant. The change that happened came about primarily because of the Social Gospel Movement. It happened primarily through, not because, the thinking of Rauschenbusch.
Mohler: That’s exactly where I want to go. In a few moments, I want to come back to Cardinal Dulles, whom I had the opportunity to know. I want to come back to Walter Rauschenbusch who I didn’t have the opportunity to know and who was dead long before I was born. I can just tell you, as a Baptist, that you’re one of the very few people I know who tells the story of Rauschenbusch so well and, even more importantly, understands that Rauschenbusch set the stage for almost everything we’re talking about, in terms of the contemporary shape of mainline Protestantism. You frankly tell the story brilliantly. How did you come to the conclusion that Rauschenbusch was at the center of that story.
Bottum: I really did come to that conclusion, didn’t I? That’s not where I started out. I’m not sure what I had in mind. By the end of research this and thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that he was the most consequential public intellectual we’ve had in the last 150 years. He just dominates that stage. Now, I will say that he’s an inferior thinker. He’s a B-class thinker. William James is the genius in that generation, not Rauschenbusch. Yet, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the great Victorian historian, has this line in which she says, “If you want to understand an age, you should always go to its second-tier thinkers. It’s first tier thinkers see the problems before they arrive, and they sidestep in ways that you don’t appreciate. Its second-tier thinkers don’t see the problems of the age until they bop them in the nose.” It’s a brilliant line. Rauschenbusch is a second-tier thinker. He’s a great rhetorician. I’ve fallen in love with his prose, but he’s not William James. He’s not the genius of the age. He’s not William James in the United States. He’s not Nietzsche in Europe. He doesn’t stand at that level of thinker. Yet, he’s a great rhetorician and he feels the age.
He writes in one letter that “the age burns in his bones.” I’ve fallen in love with his rhetoric. He’s a great writer. I came to see that you could interpret every move, every moral and ethical move, that the elite class understands now. You can trace every one of them back to a theme in Rauschenbusch. When I came across one of his later descriptions of the Social Gospel Movement, I realized that he actually put forward a list that named every one of those, that the great sins of the age are militarism, the madness of the mob, bigotry, etc. He goes through, and he names these. I realized this list, if you could just strip out Jesus, is the list of social superiorities by which the elite class American claims the moral authority to rule.
Mohler: You pointed out that these new poster children of the post-Protestant age following Rauschenbusch basically accepted his understanding his understanding of social reality and his redefinition of sin, but they stripped out even Rauschenbusch’s rather liberal understanding of Jesus. It’s the Social Gospel without Jesus.
Bottum: I think you’re uniquely positioned to appreciate this. Rauschenbusch had a strange father, who was quiet brilliant. He was very peculiar, and the mother was little saner. Rauschenbusch inherited a Christianity that was robust, self-confident, Bible reading, church attending, and very sure of itself. He could play with basic concepts, basic root stuff, and he could reach down to the core of the religion and manipulate and play with it in the sure and certain confidence that every Sunday his congregation would be in the pews. They would here echoes of biblical language. He could do wild and wondrous things and still have his people with him. Of course, you wouldn’t have their grandchildren with him. They would stop going to church and stop reading the Bible, but he came out of such a sure and confident place that he thought it would be easy to play with these concepts. Easy it was. Unfortunately, his play created a world in which you didn’t need Jesus anymore. Jesus became this great moral teacher, who revealed for us, suffered on his body, the social sins. Rauschenbusch himself really is a Christian. Christ suffered on his body the social sins of the world. We could see them in his flesh. Then he’s resurrected, and he teaches us all that these are sins, and we rise to a new moral place, aiming at the “Kingdom that is always but coming.” We rise to that place when we see that these are social sins that have been visited upon him. All you need to do after that was strip out Jesus. In the book, I offer this metaphor. “For Rauschenbusch, Jesus is like this ladder by which we climb to a new and higher ledge. Once there, you don’t need the ladder anymore.”
Mohler: I did catch what you did there. Some others might not. When you spoke of Rauschenbusch carry his congregation but not his grandchildren, you meant that a little more specifically than people understood, because one of his grandchildren was Richard Rorty, the philosopher who explicitly opposed every single supernatural claim and said that these claims are actual impossible intellectually to make. The claims are not just wrong. He would argue that they are impossible.
Bottum: Rorty is the great atheistic philosopher of that generation, my father’s generation. He’s literally Walter Rauschenbusch’s grandson. Early in the book, I was speaking about the Reverend Spence, who was a really heroic and wonderful Methodist circuit writer in Iowa and a little bit in Colorado. His son turned out to be a writer, Hartzell Spence. He was named after the great Methodist Bishop of Canada. Hartzell Spence turned out to be a writer, and in the 1940s and early 50s, he wrote a pair of bestsellers about his own childhood and his father. They were bestsellers in America called Get Thee Behind Me and One Foot in Heaven. They’re really wonderful, sweet books. But, the picture he presents of the Christianity has descended in one generation from this very specific forceful, strong, and certain Wesleyanism of the father to the writer’s generic Christianism. “We all kind of believe the same thing.” We don’t intrude our faith into religion, but we’re confident because we really are the center of America. What odds would you give that the grandchildren of that writer, Hartzell Spence, are Methodist?
Mohler: Indeed, or Christians in any sense. You mention Walter Rauschenbusch, and again, I think you tell his story better than I’ve yet seen it told. You also get to William James. I believe William James is the most influential philosopher in American history. People channel him today in ways that they don’t even have a clue. How did you come to understand the Jamesian role in the midst of this great transformation?
Bottum: James is, as you say, the most influential thinker of the 19th Century in every way that one wants to measure it, except in the direct social consequence. I think Rauschenbusch surpasses him. In American philosophy, James occupies this place of coming first. He’s the first American philosopher of any consequence, pure philosopher. He’s the first American thinker to be recognized as a first rate thinker in his field since Jonathan Edwards. In terms of his historical positions, he actually occupies the place of coming last. He’s the last person who can stand on the shoulders of the Boston Puritans with confidence and security that the founding impulse that brought everyone to America is still in full force. A single generation later, you have out of that Brahman class, T.S. Elliott who is very much not confident about civilization and his place in it. James is only one generation older, and he’s full of this confidence and certainty. That’s what allows him to put forward this kind of pragmatism in which he says talks about his corridor theory. There are all these rooms that live on the edge of the great corridor that we walk down. Anyone of them is coherent, and you can live in it. You should live in it. That’s the great, broad shouldered American version of pragmatism. A single generation later and the thing he never foresaw will have taken place. America’s moral imagination will say that it’s immoral to choose any room. You have to live in the great corridor, where you are non-judgmental about all the rooms.
Mohler: William James, as you pointed out is less immediately impactful in terms of American thinking than some of his colleagues. Yet, he sets the stage of the demise of his own class in one sense. You really place the corridor theory to an amplified role, which I think is helpful. Eventually, as you say, William James takes you into the corridor that says that truth is just a corridor, and you can follow whichever corridor is your and has cash value. As you point out, the next generation closes the doors to the corridor.
Bottum: It’s like a hotel corridor, and you can no longer enter any of the rooms. You just have to live in the corridor, which is this non-judgmental refusal to say that anything is more moral than anything else. Relativism. This is where we get this relativism. It came out of the non-relativist, William James.
Mohler: Jodi Bottum’s reading of the post-Protestant age, I think, takes on particular importance, in one sense, because he’s not a Protestant. He writes as a Roman Catholic. He’s in a position, as both a historian and an intellectual, to look at the current situation in America and see how Protestant it is, in terms of its enduring patterns of thought. We’ll get back to that in just a moment, in terms of how those patterns of thought continue in this now post-Protestant age. But we also need to turn to the second half of his book, which deals more with the public significance and the fate of Catholicism in the modern age.
You know, in your book, I enjoyed the first part very, very much, especially where you deal with the poster children of the post-Protestant age as you call them. But the second part frankly falls right upon it, and I found your reading of American Catholicism to be frankly bracing. And a couple of things I wanted to ask you about, in terms of your treatment of Catholicism. You point out. By the way, as an evangelical thinker I want to affirm what you said and that is, there’s been a huge dependence, in terms of American public theology on the patterns of Catholic thinking that were quite systematically available when evangelicals did not have that kind of a system. There is an incredible lure to that system.
Bottum: A few years ago, I spoke, Al, at an evangelical college. I was one of the first Catholics that they ever had in. And at the dinner afterwards, the president of the college says to me with this twinkle in his eye, “You know, one quarter of our incoming freshman class were baptized Catholics and they’ve become evangelicals.” And one of the faculty members at the dinner looks at up and he says – because, of course, no college president can get away with anything nowadays – “Well, that’s right Bill, but you should also tell him that 8 out of our last 10 valedictorians have converted to Catholicism upon graduation.” And for a long time, Al, that was the picture we had, that all of these suburban Catholics knew exactly who these kids were, that they went to church on Christmas and Easter but basically that was the sum total of their exposure to Catholicism. And the first time they actually heard the name of Jesus was at an evangelical soccer league where they encountered people who took Christ seriously, and they drifted into evangelicalism from that end. And this is the low end of the least Christianized Catholics. At the same end at this time we have this picture which said the most intellectual kids, the kids who are most morally serious about the intellectual life are leaving the evangelical churches for Catholicism so that Catholicism was losing on the low end of least Christianized kids and gaining on the high end and its most intellectual kids out of evangelicalism. For a long time, Al – I’m not saying that picture is fair – but I’m saying for a long time, it is the picture that we had.
Mohler: Well I think I can get back to your point by saying that one of the problems that evangelicals had to face squarely is the fact that we did not have an adequate public theology, an adequate understanding of how to speak of Christian truth claims in the public square in the way that Catholics given their natural law pattern of thinking were far more prepared to do. Let’s put it this way. A lot of evangelicals who would never swim the Tiber and join the Roman Catholic Church have been using arguments that aren’t as Catholic as you might have indicated in the sense that it was Catholics who got there from the Christian tradition – if you’ll forgive my slight modification – in a systematic way and in a uniquely Catholic way of asserting magisterial authority that frankly there’s still a dependence upon.
Bottum: I think that the rediscovery of Kuyper, the Dutch politician and theologian, is uniquely significant because he was nearly forgotten and then brought back and rediscovered. And I think he is really seriously significant for reminding people that Calvinism in particular has deep resources for this kind of thing. Still my argument in that second half of the book – in the first half of the book I look at Protestantism in America; in the second half of the book I look at Catholicism – and my essential argument here is not theological. I’m not claiming that Catholicism is theologically superior or inferior or in any way comparing the theologies. I’m describing the historical fact that in the late 1980s and through the 1990s into the 2000s, the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches opened this hole in American public life, this moral vacuum. And the two largest groups of Christians who had always been kept on the outside were sucked in to fill the hole. And they were on the one side the Catholics and on the other the Bible-believing evangelical churches. And they met there, and a kind of ecumenism of the trenches developed in which the dying mainline became the center anti-Catholicism. The number of evangelicals who were anti-Catholic declined in massive amounts. And the Catholics who never really even considered the evangelicals before, who thought that their enemies were the mainline Protestants, were forced to encounter these evangelicals. And projects that I belonged to in those days that we all believed in, evangelicals and Catholics together, were arranged to see this possibility of some new kind of combination of Catholics and evangelicals could fill the hole, supply the missing leg to the American experiment that the mainline Protestants used to provide.
Mohler: And you had someone who demonstrates your pattern: the former Lutheran come major Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus.
Bottum: Richard and I were very close. He baptized my daughter, and we were enormously close. Al, I was at all those meetings. I was the young guy sitting with his mouth shut because Richard told me to. Richard was also a domineering figure. Chuck Colson was in this. Avery Dulles was in this. Richard Land who was what the Marxists would have called party theoretician out of the Southern Baptist Convention. These were major figures. Avery was there, and they were all struggling with theological questions to find ways in which evangelicals and Catholics could live together and work together to provide the new moral center of America, the missing leg of American spirit and freedom the mainline Protestants had previously provided. We failed in that project.
Mohler: I really want to follow up on that just a bit. My guess is that we may well have met in some of those meetings because I was in some of them too. I did not have enduring opportunities to talk with Avery Cardinal Dulles, but it was at one of those meetings where I sat next to him. And frankly as a doctoral student in theological method and historical theology, I had read so much of his work and his models of revelation and his understanding of dogma. And you really helped in this book to crystallize something I’ve never seen anyone else quite get to, and that is that a good many people – and Avery Dulles was a convert to Catholicism himself, even kind of a traitor from his class in that era – but they were drawn to the system of thinking, to the intellectual edifice of Catholicism before they were drawn, we might say, to the church itself. Is that fair to say?
Bottum: Now remember he converted in the 30s. His conversion was the same era as Thomas Merton’s whose conversion is told in the bestselling book The Seven Storey Mountain. This is a 1930s experience of conversion to Catholicism. Al, never was there a class so converted by the sheer intellectual power. In this way, it’s reminiscent of the Oxford movement, of the conversions of the 1840s. In the 1840s, Neuman very clearly sees that he is converted from something beautiful and coherent and lovely to something that is ugly and a mess. But he is converted to it because he sees it intellectually as necessary, that the Anglicanism of his own age is incoherent. In the conversions of the 1890s, this is the Oscar Wilde era of conversions. They think they’re converting to something beautiful. In the conversions of the 1930s, we’ve returned to this very strange conversion out of intellectual conviction. In A Testimonial to Grace, his conversion book, the book in which he tells the story of his own conversion. Avery essential says he went to Harvard. He began to study philosophy. He realized that medieval philosophy, specifically Thomas Aquinas, makes much more sense of the world. He then sees that just as an intellectual matter, if he’s going to accept the philosophy, he has to accept the theology and so he converts to Catholicism. And it’s so insanely, wonderfully, beautifully, peculiarly intellectualized in a way that a model evangelical conversion, which says have a change of heart and come to Jesus, can barely begin to comprehend the strange path by which Avery tells his story of arriving at Christ. And so it was kind of a decision that one made based some way on the intellectual factors. It’s wonderful and peculiar and typical, I think, of the set of conversions that happen in what I call the JPII generation that’s brought up under John Paul. It’s also not unrelated, Al, to the point I made earlier about our picture of evangelicals grabbing the lowest level of Catholics while Catholics were grabbing the highest level of evangelicals. Because what the Catholic Church was offering in those days was intellectual coherence.
Mohler: That is certainly true. When you cite so many of the authorities who are our friends, people like Robert George at Princeton. And you can’t really talk about the Christian world’s engagement with the issues of the day without pointing to the kinds of influence issued by very prominent Roman Catholics like Neuhaus and also Robert George. But when we get to Cardinal Dulles, I need to ask you a question straightforwardly. Here is one of the things that has always kind of confused me and that is, you have someone like Avery Dulles who is certainly in the Roman Catholic context a defender of Catholic orthodoxy in his own way and yet he appears as you say even co-presiding with very liberal Protestants. How exactly does that work? It has always been a confusion to me.
Bottum: Well Avery was – I mean God rest his soul – he was a wonderful person. My daughter, my little daughter, was so enormously close to him, just madly in love with him. He gave her her first communion, so to hear every challenge I feel rising within me this urge to defend him against any charge. And yet Avery was first and foremost a churchman in a very old-fashioned sense that we forget existed. But one of the best ways to understand him is he spent his whole life after he reached his maturity, he spent his whole theological career defending Vatican II, defending its orthodoxy. And for the first 20 years after Vatican II into the 1980s that made him look like a raging liberal because what he was basically trying to do was explain how radically new and liberal Vatican II was to a generation of older Catholics who were very conservative in their faith. The second 20 years of his professional career from around 1980 to his death around 2000 was spent trying to explain the conservatism of Vatican II to the essentially liberal generation that had risen up to replace that old conservative generation. That’s why he seemed to be such a liberal in the 70s and such a conservative in the 1990s. But always what was at the center of his thought was the orthodoxy of the Second Vatican Council.
Mohler: I want to update, Jody, if I may your argument. I drew a lot of attention back in December of 2014 to what I consider still to be maybe the most important magazine essay of the year, which is your cover story in the Weekly Standard titled, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas.” In that article, you’re a good deal more clear about how this spiritual energy has been transformed into political advocacy. I’d love to hear you talk about that for a moment because I think there are a lot of people who read that article, and it was like a light bulb going on saying, ‘That’s exactly what’s happening.’
Bottum: I got a sense after I published the book last summer. I got the sense last spring. I got the sense that I’d left unclear and people were still unsure what I meant when I said that the modern liberal elite class is still in its formal structure of its thought Protestant Christians. So I sat down and I tried to, last fall, and I tried to give three examples of ways in which the formal shape of Christian ideas perdures in this elite class if you strip out Christ from it. And I gave the example of original sin for instance where I said, ‘Ok, look at the idea brooded over the summer and fall of white privilege. You can see that it has the exact shape of original sin. It is an inherited fault, but it’s original sin without Jesus.’ And I looked in a similar way at shunning in the ways that it now appears. One of the ways I explore in that article “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas,” is really quite mischievous. It’s the idea of the apocalypse, and I point out that the radical survivalists on the right and the radical environmentalists on the list share an idea that somehow the apocalypse is coming. It’s just the old Christian idea of the apocalypse with Christ stripped out of it. But it has the same formal shape, and it provides them the same kind of moral certainties that previous generations had had.
Mohler: Also when you make the point – and again I think it just might well be the most important magazine article of 2014 – you make the point that with this kind of doctrinal ardor comes a certain form of moral fanaticism which explains why people who seemingly lack any theology still have a very theological sense of fervor.
Bottum: There’s this pattern in Protestant Christianity. It’s in Catholic Christianity too. There’s this pattern in Christianity of a kind of fanaticism. It’s there in Francis throwing off his cloak and embracing the leper. It’s there in George Fox kicking off his shoes and saying, ‘The streets of minor British cities are the holy land.’ It’s there in denunciations thundered from American pulpits. It’s there deep in our psyches. And one of the things I notice in people espousing white guilt, for instance, this guiltiness of white privilege is that they have that same fanatical tone. This is a failure on the part of Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic alike that we’ve offered these people no outlet for their moral outrage. A magazine sent me to cover the occupy Wall Street movement when it was at its peak. And I never got article written Al because I couldn’t understand where these kids were coming from. But over the years it became clear to me that they were the levelers and the diggers out of 18th century England. They were this group of people outraged, literally morally outraged, that the world lies in sin. And it’s an apocalyptic movement that calls to God to come undo this world. And if you don’t recognize that, that’s a real mode in which Christianity can express itself then we don’t understand where these kids are coming from. And indeed in which human nature can express itself the world lies in sin, a pining and we know what’s wrong. These kids would say what’s wrong is there’s misdistribution of money. I mean it’s a kind of craziness, but it’s also deeply related to this human hunger to say, ‘Why is God allowing this to go on?’
Mohler: I thank you so much for your analysis here, but I want to ask you to prognosticate a bit. That’s the one thing that I was kind of left hanging with in both the book and the article. And I’m almost afraid to ask, but what do you think comes next?
Bottum: I don’t know, Al. The book in many ways was as neutral as I could make it. It’s an attempt to say, ‘This is where we are.’ And I’m not going to make a judgment on where we’re going. I have a cover story coming out in a week or two in Books and Culture on the novel, the history of the novel as an art form, which says that it was an essentially Protestant art form that came out of 18th century England. And its birth there shaped the novel itself would come to exist. It was designed to solve a particularly Protestant problem of the self. And as mainline Protestantism falters across the world, what’s happened to the novel? And I’m very proud of this piece in certain ways. But it’s more what you’re describing, which is: I’m analyzing the problem without offering a solution. I have in mind a book of mysticism. We finished a little bit of it, and my agent is out shopping it now. It’s where I think we need to go. We need to re-mystify the world and understand a natural mysticism and a creation of this world, a sense of this world created so we can understand once again the question that Christ is the answer to. So where we’re going to go is exactly there, I hope. In a very convoluted way, my new book in mysticism is going to be my answer to the problem described by an anxious age. But it may be purely idiosyncratic. I don’t see an immediate rebirth of Christianity. The evangelical moment is over. Evangelicalism right now is a force in decline, sociologically speaking. Catholicism is under major attack. I don’t see an immediate rebirth of either of them.
Mohler: Nor do I.
Bottum: I don’t see the destruction either, but I don’t see them reemerging. This is why I say in the second half of the book, the Catholic half, that evangelicals and Catholics together project is something that we lost.
Mohler: Well the reason that I asked the question the way I did is you mention T.S. Elliot more than once. I think of him very often, especially when I think of the future because as he warns – both in his poetry and his prose – in an age like ours when the passion is spent, a massive, horrifying anti-humanism can step in. And that’s what I fear is that when you have the apocalyptic beliefs of these poster children of the post-Protestant age that you call it. When you have their understanding of original sin and when you have them pushing these urgencies as they are, when that disappears, I think it could be a very frightening prospect of what’s left.
Bottum: I think you’re a little more dour than I am, Al. I have great confidence in the basic good sense of get-along-ness of America. But it could easily turn in that direction. You get things like Cardinal George of Chicago saying he expects to end his career as a public churchman in jail. You get a feeling that persecution is waiting just around the corner. I have greater confidence in the basic good sense of America that will prevent that. But there is no doubt that the kind of Protestant faith which was a founding element of the American experiment and one of the major producers of American exceptionalism has simply collapsed as a public force with the disappearance of the mainline churches. And that opens up dozens of new possibilities in a way that we could have never imagined for this country before.
Mohler: But I think that points to one thing in your book you’re so candid about. And that’s why, for instance, I speak of I did have a crisis of religious liberty in the background of my thinking. But in the foreground of my thinking, in that assertion was that you have these post-Protestants who could very easily abandon any of the Christian traditions on human dignity, and you’re so candid in your book about the function of the issue of abortion as the great moral dividing line. You really do underline that.
Bottum: I spent my career as a public intellectual fighting abortion. This was always a motivating factor for me. This is why I didn’t drift off into doing literary criticism, much as a love it. Or my own training is actually in medieval philosophy. That’s what my doctorate is in. But I didn’t feel like I could be a scholar because they’re killing babies. The mythical one issue voter. I’d vote for a communist dogcatcher if he were more pro-life than his opponent. But the fact remains that if you can’t see the human, the baby, then all kinds of new possibilities that we would have never imagined before open up and they are all horrifying. And this is where I think we can draw a line in the sand. But also morally speaking, we can see a great intellectual divide between those who still feel the human is real and morally particular and those for whom it’s all become vague and manipulable and plastic and changeable. And here I stand. I’ll stand on the side of those who see the human here as particular and unique and the center of moral discourse.
Mohler: I really enjoyed that conversation with Jody Bottum, and one of the reasons why I enjoyed the conversation is because I already feel like I have had a conversation with him many times over through his writings. Dr. Bottum is just a brilliant writer. I would not want to miss anything he writes. And I feel like every time I read one of his essays or books, I am already engaging in a conversation with him. I tend to write in the books I’m reading anyway, and I can promise you my copy of his writing, those copies, are thoroughly marked up. And of course, one of the reasons why I enjoyed the conversation with Jody Botttum is because I think this new book An Anxious Age is a particularly important book. I think he really gets at what many people miss in terms of the contours of the thinking of our now very anxious age. And the way he tells the story is particularly important. He tells the story of the fact that what we have is an enduring pattern of spirituality and of thinking that owes its architecture to Protestantism but doesn’t owe any of its content, at least in terms of the theological content to the central claims of Protestant Christianity. Quite honestly, his prose is just stellar. It’s crystalline when it’s describing the current situation. He writes things like this: “Through the long centuries after the middle ages, the combination of liberal Protestantism and scientific materialism slowly drained Western civilization of its metaphysical density. Devils, specters, elves, magic; all fading away.”
And of course, what he documents is that theism itself in terms of the classical Christian understanding of God and Christianity, well that too has simply faded away in what he describes as “the Western cultures losing their metaphysical density.” And as an evangelical, I also think it’s really important that as he traces this de-theologizing, this secularizing from within in terms of Protestant Christianity, and the eventual result in this post-Protestant age, he goes back to a philosopher like William James. As I said in the conversation, I think most Americans and most particularly American evangelicals fail to understand how echoes of William James continue to be heard virtually everywhere in our culture. The inherent pragmatism of James. When people hear pragmatism, they generally think of it wrongly because in James’ understanding of pragmatism, it means that truth is only found in an idea if the idea works in the sense of having cash value. He didn’t believe in anything like an objective truth in what we might consider to be a correspondence to be a moral reality to a moral claim. Instead, he spoke of truth as in his words, “What happens to an idea.” It really is key to understanding our current age to understand that a lot of the people around us, many if not most in certain circles, actually believe what James said that truth is what happens to an idea. It’s not objectively or independently true because it corresponds to a reality much less a supernatural reality.
And I think it’s brilliant how he goes back to Walter Rauschenbusch and quite honestly he tells the story better than almost anyone else has told it. He gets to the essence of what Walter Rauschenbusch was about, and he understands that the eventual impact of the social gospel was that it didn’t leave much for Jesus to do, if anything. It’s not a work of atonement that’s really called for. Instead, what you have is an understanding of Christianity that is transformed into its social effect. And Bottum is very clear here when he points to the fact that for Walter Rauschenbusch, sin wasn’t an act. Sin was rather a system of structures. Jody Bottum is particularly helpful in pointing to the class issues at stack here in terms of the Episcopalian class he describes the Anglican tradition in America. They really did dominate intellectually, institutionally, dominated in terms of leadership. A look back at the historical record will show the imbalance whereby a group that represented only a very small percentage of Americans by membership, certainly in the 20th century and beyond was represented in the quarters of power. For instance, in institutions such as the United States Senate, all out of proportion to those numbers. And as you look to the waning of that Protestant class of Episcopalians, you also understand that what came before it was the waning of a theological tradition, the waning of theological conviction that came way before the waning of the class. As a matter of fact, that class did continue.
I mentioned in the conversation that connecting the dots is really important in order to get to someone like the Episcopalian titan and the leader of the ecumenical movement even though people forget that John Foster Dulles perhaps the most famous and memorable Secretary of State in the middle decades of the 20th century. It was John Foster Dulles who was the defense attorney for Harry Emerson Fosdick in terms of his heresy trial in the early decades of the 20th century. That to me is a perfect parable, a perfect illustration of the fact that this class sold out its theology before it was in turn sold out in terms of its status and its influence in society. I mentioned near the end of that cover story in the Weekly Standard and I really appreciated Dr. Bottum describing the fact that he wrote that after reflecting after the publication of the book on what might not have been so specific in his argument, and that is the transformation of doctrinal energy in this new post-Protestant age and in the intellectual elites and those who more generally find themselves or think themselves in what they call the right side of history. In a way that actually follows the architecture of Protestant theology and I would commend that essay to you. Again, it’s called “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas.”
And he points out a lot of the very supposedly secular arguments that are being made even in a way that is intended to be in direct contradiction to Christianity that these are made with a doctrinal fervor following architecture of Protestant theology, such as an understanding of original sin. Every worldview has to answer that question and a lot of the people who are protesting out there in what they consider to be secular movements are actually arguing that the original sin isn’t going to be something that’s defined in the Scripture. It’s something that’s going to be defined in terms of oppression or economic injustice. And he also points to the apocalypticism every worldview has to explain where things are going and when you hear some of the extreme ecologists and others as they give their apocalyptic warnings, it sounds very much like the architecture, intellectually speaking, of the cartoonish figure who’s standing at the street corner with a sandwich board that says, ‘Repent, for the end is at hand.’
Speaking of some of these modern worldviews and the political fervor behind them in that essay, Dr. Bottum wrote that what he sees is the shape of a Christian worldview. Listen to these words carefully, “Or at least what a Christian worldview would be if it lacked any role for the gospel.” So in one sense we arrive in the second decade of the 20th century where we were in the early decades of the 20th century with the social gospel movement. There are very clear echoes of the same kind of logic. The architecture intellectually is the same kind of argument. And the presence all too clear the same kind of fervor.
Another very important part of the conversation with Dr. Bottum had to do with contemporary Catholicism and the fate of Catholicism in the 20th century and that is a brilliant section of the book as well. And he writes as a Catholic, not as a Protestant. Now again, I found most interesting where he writes of Protestantism as a Catholic. And as a confessional Protestant as an evangelical reading the second half of his book, there were a lot of dots that were connected, a lot of things I knew came to a deeper resonance and understanding of because of the way he tells the story of Catholicism in the 20th century. And I know and have known and have met many of the figures he cites and know some of his friends today. And this is where as an evangelical, I’m going to come back and say that there is no or should be no reluctance on the part of today’s evangelicals to admit a certain undeniable dependence upon the intellectual traditions and the intellectual arguments that were put forth largely by Roman Catholic individuals in the 20th century facing such issues as the culture of death, as Pope John Paul II called it, facing issues like abortion and euthanasia. When looking at the defense of marriage in terms of the public square there is no doubt that evangelicals have been appropriating natural law arguments or arguments that are rightly classified as natural law arguments. Those arguments largely having been hammered out centuries before and especially in terms of the contemporary context in the decades of the 20th century by very similar Roman Catholic thinkers. And again there should be no reluctance to admit that in the same way that morally we need to admit that evangelicals showed up on the lines of the pro-life movement in historical terms largely after Roman Catholics had already been there.
And Dr. Bottum also spoke of efforts such as evangelicals and Catholics together, interestingly calling that a failed project, which I think is historically accurate not just to say that there were no political gains and that there was no cultural traction at all to it, but to say that it did not as intended in hoped by those who framed and signed those documents a cultural reset of a return to an understanding of the dignity and sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage that had been hoped for. And in terms of those ECT documents, I did not sign them even as I was a part of some of those conversations simply because there was a mixture of terms with which I as a confessional Protestant just could not be at peace. But we can state too much and we can state too little, and one of my intellectual fears is not stating honestly that there has been an appropriation of many of the natural law arguments and yet one of the things I wanted to say as I was speaking to Dr. Bottum is the fact that in making those arguments, I don’t believe that evangelicals should understand that simply as appropriating arguments that were made by others, but understanding that there is a form of very legitimate Protestant argument that follows the very same lines of understanding what it means for God to have created the world as he did, and to have declared it good. And to have made it for his pleasure and his glory. And then understanding, in terms of an argument that we even find in the New Testament itself (for instance in Romans 1) in understanding how to defend those very things we go right back to creation. Something we’ve learned over and over again.
And so even as a confessional Protestant (I want to be very clear), what I think we’re actually talking about here is a very long line of Christian intellectual effort and of doctrinal conversation, and of the affirmation of certain very deep biblical truths that we are re-appropriating at a different time and at a different context.
But there’s more to it than that, and that is where I simply must conclude. I am indeed a confessing Protestant. And as I often think to myself, more Protestant by the day. For even as I stand back with respect for so many very honest and frankly brilliant Catholic thinkers who have contributed so much to the conversation, I realize just with every passing day (indeed sometimes it seems with every passing hour) how dependent I believe the Church is – the believing, confessing Church in the end on nothing but the authority of Scripture. That is, I have never been more committed to sola scriptura (as well as, of course, justification by faith alone and the rest of the hallmarks of confessional Protestantism), than when I understand that in this increasingly anxious age there is no form of argument – including natural law argument- that is truly compelling to a secular mind that is committed to the very passions of what Jody Bottum describes as this ‘anxious age.’ Confessing Protestantism is left with the scandal of sola scriptura. It is indeed a scandal in the modern age. It’s a scandal even to many who, looking into confessional Protestantism say, ‘You certainly must have more than that.’ And at the end of the day, this is why I come back again and again to the fact that I think you’re going to see over and over again, that those who will find something other than sola scriptura will find some way to make peace with this modern age in a way that I believe will violate Scripture and come fall short of scriptural teaching. And that’s where I simply have to conclude with a word of great gratitude to Jody Bottum for joining me in this conversation – and I think hearing it, you’ll understand why. What a generous conversation from someone who has so much to say.
I also want to point out something that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk about, and that is that over the last couple years, Dr Bottum has also written a defense – what he calls a Catholic defense – of same-sex marriage. And I think, given the patterns of Catholic argument and the resources of the Catholic tradition, there are way that a good number Catholics are going to get there. I don’t believe that those who are committed to the sole authority of Scripture to decide such issues can get there. And that’s where the conversation, as much as I enjoyed it, again at the end of day makes me – well, honestly – even more confessionally Protestant than ever before.
The conversation also explains why I would not miss anything that Jody Bottum writes. That was true before, it’s even more true now.
Once again I want to thank my guest, Dr Joseph Bottum, for thinking with me today.
For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.
I’m Albert Mohler.