Thinking In Public

September 9, 2020

Post-Protestantism's Anxious Age Revisited: A Conversation with Joseph Bottum

Transcript

My previous Thinking in Public conversation with Joseph Bottum can be found here.

 

Albert 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, Kentucky.

Joseph Bottum is one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States. A graduate of Georgetown University, he holds a doctorate in medieval studies from Boston College. He's a former editor-in-chief of the important journal, First Things. He is currently professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classical Studies Program at Dakota State University.

Back in 2015, he released a book entitled, The Anxious Age and I enjoyed a Thinking in Public conversation with him about that topic. And that book then also expanded to an important essay he wrote about the religious shape, political ideas about the same time. As I say in this program, those works turned out to be nearly prophetic.

But our conversation today is going to pick up on many of those same issues, but moved to the year 2020. We really do have an opportunity to update that conversation in a way I think you'll find, as I did, quite fascinating. Joseph Bottum is also the author of a new and important book entitled The Death of the Novel. But today, we're going to be talking about a range of issues that are very much tied to ongoing conversations about the shape of our culture, how it got here, and why it matters.

Joseph Bottum, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Joseph Bottum:

Thank you for having me.

Albert Mohler:

We're kind of picking up on a conversation of about five years ago. In 2014, you wrote a book that I still recommend very widely, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. But in some ways our conversation back then was also prompted by a very significant article that you had published in 2014, entitled The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas.

Albert Mohler:

And so, I want to welcome you back to this conversation and in the first place, I just want to say you first have the satisfaction of having written a book that ended up being prophetic.

Joseph Bottum:

Well, prophetic, small p, sure. When the book first came out, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and I had a debate at Georgetown about the book and he was about to release his own book called Bad Religion. So, this kind of stuff is very much in his mind.

Joseph Bottum:

And he recently wrote in New York Times that this book of mine, An Anxious Age, seemed interesting five years ago, but somewhat abstract. And he said, turns out like now, it's impossible to deny the spiritual hunger that is in these people and manifesting it that are marching the streets of the city and looting and expressing a spiritual hunger it seems to me that like many unfulfilled spiritual hungers expresses itself in violence.

Albert Mohler:

And it's doing so right before our eyes. If I may show hubris here, I'm going to set down one of my theological axioms I teach in class as a theologian and write about talk about and that is that I'll call it Mohler Steady State Theory of Religion, which is that religious fervor doesn't ebb and flow. It's just differently directed at any given time.

Albert Mohler:

And as a theologian, I'm going to say that's because I believe the imago Dei and God made us in his image as Augustine spoke of his heart having no rest until it found its rest in thee. I think this fervor is going to take some shape. It did in the '60s and it's doing so again now. And in between, it was basically a flight into narcissism, but now back onto the streets again.

Joseph Bottum:

I think that's right. But in America, it occurs with a kind of particularity that's worth our noticing. The general proposition that human beings are always thus is absolutely [inaudible 00:04:20]. But different cultures, different times, different histories make it manifest itself in different ways.

Joseph Bottum:

And on the streets of America right now, we're seeing a particular form of this spirituality, of the spiritual hunger that is the human, the restless heart that is the human. And what that particularity is, I claimed five years ago is shaped for these people, though they know it not as or by the death of the mainline Protestant churches.

Albert Mohler:

Yes.

Joseph Bottum:

That it is a particularly Protestant form that, of course, is not Protestant at all. It's from the mainline churches, the demons in America that they used to corral and redirect toward self-improvement, towards sanctification, toward-

Albert Mohler:

Civic activity.

Joseph Bottum:

... a lot of other things. When the churches failed, when those mainline churches that were, I claim, I've always claimed, the very definition of America, when they failed, they let loose those demons. And the demons burst out onto the street and began to go to the places where they could survive, notably politics.

Joseph Bottum:

As I've said over and over again, if you think your ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken but actually evil, you have ceased to do politics and begun to do something resembling religion.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, certainly something resembling theology in the categories of good and evil. As we're thinking about this, by the way, you talk about particularly American, I was telling some students the other day, the way I look at it is this, as a student of literature and theology and trying to understand the world, it takes about a century to find out what Russians think. It takes a decade or so to find out what Germans think. It takes about 10 minutes to find out what Americans think. It gets translated into words, action, politics, culture very quickly here. And social media has just made that even more incendiary.

Albert Mohler:

And so, a lot of the things have been kind of bubbling under the surface and maybe a repressed religious urge is no longer repressed. And you make a-

Joseph Bottum:

And the fact that they don't know that it's religious is an irony here. And, of course, the religions that emerge out of this kind of theology less spiritually anxiety, as Max Weber taught us to think about spiritual anxiety as an actual influence on history and culture.

Joseph Bottum:

And the fact that they don't recognize that makes it worse. It allows it to achieve some kinds of expressions without any sense of a limiting argument. GK Chesterton, one of his famous lines in orthodoxy is the world is full of Christian impulses gone mad.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Joseph Bottum:

What we've got here are Christian ideas gone mad. They've broken free from first of all, from the framework that made them make sense. But secondly, from any limiting principle.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

There is nothing here that can stop it. I recently pointed out that insanity is not always illogical. Sometimes it's perfectly logical.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Joseph Bottum:

It's a thought carried out to its furthest consequences without ever letting any other thoughts in truth.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I mean Dostoevsky, if no one else, makes that abundantly clear.

Joseph Bottum:

Theology is the sophisticated intellectual activity of limitation. It limits these dangerous thoughts by saying, we can push the idea of original sin as far as we want, as long as there's Christ salvation to limit.

Albert Mohler:

Right. Well, this is what Douglas Murray in Britain has pointed out, that in many ways where we are right now is that all the consciousness of sin is acute in Western society, but without any hope of salvation. Like you say or as you quoted Chesterton, it's as if all the impulse for the need for salvation is there but the metanarrative and confidence of Christianity is now gone.

Albert Mohler:

In your book, An Anxious Age but even more explicitly in your article, The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas, you really have to document that it's not just a generalized religious impulse or say theology is a mood. It's particular theological doctrines that have now been evacuated of Christian content but filled with a new kind of fervor.

Albert Mohler:

And you made this point in An Anxious Age. This is an age in our culture aching for redemption, just demanding to be redeemed and ready to make whatever public signal needs to be sent of redemption.

Joseph Bottum:

You and I have talked theology over the years, that old meetings that Richard John Neuhaus used to get together in some of our conversations. And those are of course, the important things.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

But what I was doing in An Anxious Age, what I was doing in The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas, to some degree even what I'm doing in my most recent book, which is called The Decline of the Novel is not theology. It's sociology. I don't choose to make a decision in public, those writings about whether we should all become Catholic, or which of course we should.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Joseph Bottum:

Don't make that kind of-

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. You did not make that argument in the book.

Joseph Bottum:

No, I don't because it's really an observation about the current situation and its sociological roots. And in the book, and really ever since, I've held what I call the Erie Canal thesis of American history, which is in general terms that Max Weber was absolutely right and we need to have an understanding of spiritual anxiety as a motivator for public actions and public decisions and cultural change.

Joseph Bottum:

But specifically in America, the first question you should ask if you're a historian of any moment in American history is what is the state of Protestant religion at that point? And if we ask that, because this is your country, I mean, it's not my country. Jews and Catholics were allowed to live here off and on. But the Mississippi that ran down the middle of this country was what we would come to call mainline Protestantism.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

All the churches that struggled against each other and had what Alexis de Tocqueville called the central current of American manners and morals. And at this moment, there are plenty of believing evangelicals. And then, for that matter, there are plenty believing Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants.

Joseph Bottum:

But the real condition of Protestantism in America, the main current has passed out of those churches and it's in the hands of what I call the post-Protestants.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, well, and I think that's a brilliant analysis. As a theologian, I want to argue with you just a little bit. You actually are doing theology. I know what you mean when you say you're not. But I want to say, I think in An Anxious Age, you actually do a brilliant theological analysis of a figure like Walter Rauschenbusch and the transformation of American Protestantism in the social gospel with Protestant liberalism basically transforming Protestantism into something ... And you even cite Gresham Machen, not just a new version of Protestantism, but a different religion altogether.

Albert Mohler:

But that's what one institutionally and throughout your writings, you've been really clear that this Protestant Mississippi that so shaped the culture is no longer Protestant. As you say, let's be fair, there are still fervent believers in the Episcopal Church USA. But they're so marginal in the institution's life that it has almost nothing to do with it.

Albert Mohler:

I mean, just in the last few days, the episcopal bishop of Chicago, it was in the New York Times, celebrating new nontheological rituals for corporate consultants. I mean, that's what we're down to in the Episcopalians as a denomination. But you're exactly right. It was a worldview of Protestantism that made the American experiment and ordered liberty possible and then shaped its civic life for a long time until it didn't.

Joseph Bottum:

Except I'm claiming it still does, that the genealogy of this passes through those mainline churches far more than it does argue for instance that we can talk all we want about the Puritan roots of America in the 1950s when American studies was suddenly introduced into the curriculum of colleges as a field. There was Perry Miller. There were a lot of people looking back to the Puritans.

Joseph Bottum:

But I actually argue the history of American religion has many threads, of which the Puritans are a major one. But they are all gathered for a moment in the 19th century in Upstate New York. This is why I call it the Erie Canal thesis.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

This is where we get the Miller Rights. This is where we get the knock on table spiritualist. This is where we get the Mormons. This because Rauschenbusch taught at the University of Rochester, this is where we get the Social Gospel Movement.

Joseph Bottum:

All the threads of American religion pass through the burned over district, and we get a kind of narrowing of religious possibilities that will give way to the landscape that I grew up in, which is small town America or small city in America, in which there's the Methodist church on the corner and two blocks away, there's the Presbyterian church, and then there's a bible church down by the river and there's the beautiful Episcopalian church, and then the Catholics.

Joseph Bottum:

And that's basically the shape of America that as I understood it. When those churches fail, they release something into American Life. Now, we can talk about why they fail and whether or not they had to fail logically. And I think those are very interesting questions, both historically and theologically.

Joseph Bottum:

But the fact is, they did fail. And right now, when you see as we saw in Seattle, a very carefully videotaped scene of white protesters washing the bare feet of black protesters as a statement of their own guilt, the religious fervor here and the religious roots, the vocabulary of those actions is so obviously derived from roots they know not.

Albert Mohler:

And I agree with that wholeheartedly. And I think your analysis is brilliant. And as a matter of fact, in my writings and speaking, I speak about the very same impulse. But I think what strikes me is a discontinuity. The metaphor I would use for it is of Xi Jinping’s, China, as compared to Karl Marx, or Marx and Engels' communism. It's not wrong to call the Communist Party in China communist, but it's not right either.

Albert Mohler:

And I think when you say Protestant, as a confessional Protestant I have to say that's not wrong, but it's not right either because it's not just that it's the rituals and the impulse. It's that we got an absolute denial. That's one of the categorical distinctions between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was explicitly biblical in its themes. It was preaching the prophets. It was claiming Christian identity with clergy as the most credible and charismatic leaders. But now, it's a repudiation of that, as critical race theory was a repudiation of the Civil Rights Movement.

Joseph Bottum:

Yeah, that's clearly right. If this is Protestantism, which of course I don't believe, what's taking place in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the madness of Methodists, I don't believe that.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Joseph Bottum:

But it is genealogically related in ways that I think you would agree with and also it's formally related. We've talked about this before with my idea of formal shapes of ideas in The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas, for instance. But it's formally related to some of the old mainline stuff. We can't call it Protestantism, which we clearly should not.

Joseph Bottum:

Say it's post-Protestantism, what I mean is it's gestural Protestantism in the way that we speak of gestural forms of painting school, where you have some of the shape of it, but you don't have the content. And so, they're unholy with you. I understand exactly what you mean with the China analogy. It's perfect.

Joseph Bottum:

But I do want to say there's maybe something more here, which is there's some content that passes over. It takes new shapes, but the content is still there. Or maybe the shapes pass over and get new content. Think of it this way. The worst of all possible worlds to live in that has any kind of consistency about it would be St. Augustine's view of the world without Christ.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Joseph Bottum:

Then you live in a world of despair. You live in a world of guilt. This is King Lear. Shakespeare deliberately sets that play in prehistoric England. And you have a world of Augustine's view of the universe, except without the second half of it. And it's a grim world and it's a dark world and Cordelia dies anyway. And all of Lear's suffering has been from nothing. And this is that world of darkness. It's the world in which maybe there's justice. Sometimes there's justice, but never is there mercy.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. And it's actually impossible to find these Christian doctrines and virtues untransformed in this. Original sin becomes white privilege and the ritual confession becomes as we just saw, at a law school faculty in the last few days just saying, I'm a racist and continual confession. And then all this is then without redemption.

Albert Mohler:

So, in other words, just even about the time we're having this conversation, in DC, the city released a formal report effectively calling for the federal government to remove the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. And you look at that and you go, well, let's say, ludicrously for a moment, you could move the Washington Monument. Let's just suspend our rationale for a moment.

Joseph Bottum:

To Stone Mountain, which is clearly where it belongs.

Albert Mohler:

Right, or pick up both of them and put them in the deserts in the west. But let's assume we could do that for a moment. It would bring no satisfaction to those who are demanding it. In other words, it's catharsis. And I say this to you as a Catholic and as a Protestant, Christianity offers no catharsis. It offers atonement. It's a very different thing and points to the kingdom of Christ eschatologically. One of the problems with catharsis is it just doesn't actually work.

Joseph Bottum:

Or it works so briefly, that it nearly awakens the hunger for further catharsis.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

But there is a perfect consistency to demanding that we tear down the Jefferson Memorial and we move the Washington Monument. And David Farragut has to go. I mean [crosstalk 00:21:50].

Albert Mohler:

And Flannery O'Connor.

Joseph Bottum:

I'm sorry. I couldn't hear that.

Albert Mohler:

And Flannery O'Connor.

Joseph Bottum:

And Flannery O'Connor. I was the one who broke that story about Loyola Marymount getting rid of Flannery O'Connor, whose name off of a door. Because we have so many monuments to Catholic novelists in America, we can afford to lose a few of them. Right?

Albert Mohler:

I trip over them daily.

Joseph Bottum:

Yeah. Women Catholic novelists really dominate the landscape. It's so absurd. It's so ridiculous except it's not absurd. It's logical. It is following out this thought all the way to the end as if this thought has no limitation, as if this thought had nothing that it had to conform itself to in reality.

Joseph Bottum:

And the thing we know is when we do theology, the thing we know when we do philosophy, the thing we know when we do adulthood is that there are competing claims that there are compromises that have to be made that no idea gets a free run all the way to the end of the human.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. Well, Jody, you're talking controversy there because you just mentioned adulthood and these days, it's so rare and confused that has been made into a verb. The first time in human history, adult, to adult or adulting as a participle is now a thing more remarked about in the culture for its absence or its challenge than for its success.

Albert Mohler:

I have to talk recently about the students and I mean, the editor of the student paper, the Daily Tar Heel, a university in North Carolina, blaming the institution for opening up. When a week later, it had to close and actually this is almost direct quote with the editor of the paper saying, "If your plan was for 18 to 24-year-olds to act responsibly, maybe you need a new plan." Well, civilization doesn't have a new plan.

Joseph Bottum:

Right. That is extraordinary. And there is something adolescent about it, about these ideas that we're speaking here. It is the adolescent after all, the adolescent boy who reads Ayn Rand and decides that he's going to follow that idea out to the end and be a libertarian and all the rest of it. It's an adolescent move. And the adult awakens from that and says, "That was interesting, but it's not complete." And its lack of completion is a failure, a lack of adulthood.

Joseph Bottum:

But lots of young men go through that, lots of young women go through that. And the question is whether or not as a culture, we are going to coddle and encourage it. A lot of the grievance studies, departments and universities have decided that their purpose is to coddle it.

Albert Mohler:

But Rand went so far as to argue, Ayn Rand, that sympathy is an illegitimate impulse and that care or sacrifice for another is an illegitimate impulse. And again, that works fine if you're in boxer shorts living in your mom's basement. It doesn't work fine if you want to get married and then have children because you're going to have to sacrifice for those children.

Albert Mohler:

You're going to have to do what is not in your immediate self-interest if you're going to get married, but then that goes hand in hand with the fact that the decline of marriage and the incredible fall off in the birth rate, these really go hand in hand. They're not inexplicable.

Joseph Bottum:

That's a really sharp and nice term that I like a lot. But I also swing it back to the changes in the mainline Protestant churches. When Tocqueville says that however much the sects, the rival sects argued against each other and the two seed in the spirit Baptist wanted nothing to do with this other Baptist. When he works his way through them, he says, however much they squabble, and argue about the deep theological points that mattered most of them, they somehow nonetheless combined to set the central current of manners and morals in America. And we can look at what they did in order to achieve that.

Albert Mohler:

Can I give you a good illustration of how that worked?

Joseph Bottum:

Again?

Albert Mohler:

Can I give you a good illustration how that worked in our lifetimes? The Boy Scouts of America. By the time you reach the Boy Scouts of America in the 1950s and '60s, the vast majority of Boy Scout troops are located in either Protestant or Catholic context or increasingly then Latter-Day Saints, Mormons. So that by the time you reach the Boy Scouts, when I joined the scouts about 1970, it was the same morality. It was the same moral code. It was the same basic ethical universe. It was the same practices, the same uniforms and all the rest.

Albert Mohler:

But you had a God and Country badge, which was related to your specific church. So, the Catholics had requirements to the God and Country badge that were Catholic and the Methodist and the Baptist. In my hometown, they weren't even ruled by two blocks, just one. They had their own.

Albert Mohler:

But in the main, a boy scout was a boy scout. And to me, that is one very clear statement of this Protestant consensus and you could say using Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, that there was this a religious mainstream and the Protestants dominated, there's no doubt and set the rules. I accept your charge that we built this world in that sense, but not all the responsibility of what happened thereafter.

Joseph Bottum:

That's a wonderful example. Another along some of that same line that I was actually more reminded of than Christian professions of faith by those law school faculty who had to introduce themselves as racists, yeah, there was an element of the profession of faith there. But there was-

Albert Mohler:

At least a confession.

Joseph Bottum:

Also, I was reminded of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

In which you have to stand up and say, "I'm an alcoholic." And of course, that was in an exactly the way that the boy scouts were a nondenominational Protestant American institution, Alcoholics Anonymous began is exactly that.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. And you may have noticed a flurry of articles just in the last several weeks about the demand for nontheistic, nonreligious forms of Alcoholics Anonymous because the recitation of dependence on a higher power is just too much, which I think gets to the post and post-Protestant. When the Oxford movement came about out of that Alcoholics Anonymous, there was enough Protestant structured to the culture that higher power was actually a term that was used by people like Norman Vincent Peale, who I'd say many ways-

Joseph Bottum:

Sure. I think that's really well observed. Also think how long this was building. Nietzsche, who Rene Girard taught me to think of Nietzsche as one of the great theologians of the 19th century, doing theology in the mode of anti-theology.

Albert Mohler:

Exactly.

Joseph Bottum:

And ever since he made that remark to me, I've thought about Nietzsche in this way. At one point, he goes after the English, who he thinks are just 50 years behind everybody else in Europe, the sophisticated opinion in Europe. And he denounces English flatheads and little moralistic females à la George Eliot. This is just a wonderful phrase, as Nietzsche so often has.

Joseph Bottum:

But for the failure, which was thinking they could preserve Christian ethics without Christian metaphysics, that you could get rid of God and yet somehow keep that ethics. Here we are 120 years after Nietzsche. And what do we get? We get this idea that Alcoholics Anonymous is going to work, but we can just strip out the incidental part of the metaphysics of the god stuff. It was madness in George Eliot in the 19th century. It's madness in the people demanding what you say in the 21st century.

Joseph Bottum:

But even more I think, the mainline Protestant churches, thanks to Rauschenbusch, thanks to the victory of the Social Gospel Movement, we're already giving up on the metaphysics and seeing that that required them giving up on some of the old ethics. And when you gave up on some of the old ethics, you cease to form America in the way that you used to do.

Joseph Bottum:

In the book I put it this way, I say those churches mattered more when they wanted to matter less. When their concerns with theology, they mattered more. When their certain concerns became public events, they mattered a whole lot less.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. Let me document a little bit more the truth of what you're saying here. I think that's a brilliant insight. I remember in your book where you make that particular statement about Lutherans. When Lutherans were mostly about God, they mattered a great deal, and I don't mean, there's just about Lutherans. But any denomination that shifted its emphasis into the social sphere basically lost its voice.

Albert Mohler:

But one of the things as a theologian, I keep trying to go back to is the fact that if you look at the claims of the Protestant liberals, Rauschenbusch to an extent but in particular, people like Harry Emerson Fosdick in the early 20th century, their argument was we have to abandon the metaphysic to keep the morality. And John D. Rockefeller bought that entirely and even constructing the Riverside Church, it was at all the symbols of transcendence, but there was no theism basically in it, certainly by the end of Fosdick's ministry.

Albert Mohler:

But the thing is, is that their heirs have now become the most antagonistic to Christian morality because they said sacrifice theology, you can keep the morality and actually, it was the opposite of course.

Joseph Bottum:

Now, it's well observed and I think exactly right. But I would say that when the mainline churches wanted to matter sociologically and politically, and culturally, their turn was to the ethical issues of the day. And they wanted to opine on that from a position of being moral people, instead of being a position of believers in a certain account of the universe.

Joseph Bottum:

And there are a bunch of consequences to that. But you can see what you just described. You can't preserve the ethics. In fact, now it's the ethics that you have to reject. You can see that it seems to me when the mainline Protestant churches decided to embrace divorce, which was the '30s to the '50s into the '60s for some of them.

Joseph Bottum:

Now, again, I want to set aside the theological argument about divorce, which as a Catholic profoundly disagree on and as a sociologist, I profoundly disagree. I think the effect on children is unbelievably devastating. But settle that aside and just think about the logic of it here, if Tocqueville is right, that what would become the mainline sent the central current of manners and morals, how did they shape America? How did that happen? It happened through the churches understanding of the shape of human life from baptism to marriage to funeral.

Joseph Bottum:

When Tocqueville points to the what Burke would call the small platoons, all those passages in Tocqueville held that our communitarian friends latched on to about the small institutions that America had that France did not, if you actually look at his examples, they are primarily drawn from volunteer fire departments and burial societies. That we can form these groups to make sure that our funerals are not unattended.

Joseph Bottum:

These churches gave a shape to life in America through their marriage theology, through their insistence on marriage, and their insistence on the importance of funerals, and their insistence on the importance of baptism.

Albert Mohler:

Right, absolutely.

Joseph Bottum:

And that gave shape to life. And we had talked earlier about adulthood. Why was adulthood in the shape of life that we were expected to have as Americans because the churches, in their central current of morals and manners gave that shape to us. When they began to embrace divorce, it seems to me you start to see a breakdown of the shape that they gave American life and the importance of the marriage culture and the rest of it.

Joseph Bottum:

Now, it's a minor, a small example and the ethics is going long outlast that, the power of the mainline churches and the ethics. But it is a sign that already very early on, they were willing to trade their mess of pottage for a pot of message.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I like that.

Joseph Bottum:

That we're willing to give it up.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. That's good. In the internet age, that's a meme and one that I agree with profoundly. But I want to take that one step and say, I think you're absolutely right. But the one thing that might have been slightly prior to that, an actual ecclesial action was the sudden reversal on the issue of birth control going back to 1929 in the Lambeth Conference, in which case not one Christian church, identified as a church, had approved any form of birth control that was actually interventionist until 1929. And it wasn't as shocking as everyone thought it would be and before long that came.

Albert Mohler:

And so, I think the separation of the marriage from sex and sex from procreation and eventually, divorce and no fault divorce, all that was a transformation that left the churches who accepted divorce and birth control at face value, largely bereft of any authority to try to tie these things back together by the time you get to the sexual revolution.

Joseph Bottum:

That's exactly right, Al. And here's an example that ties together a bunch of the lines that we've been talking about and I'm quite taken with now that it occurs to me, which is I will always love the Southern Baptist Convention for their change of heart on abortion.

Joseph Bottum:

In particular, when Roe v. Wade was first decided, the Southern Baptist Convention at the convention meeting passed a resolution in praise of that decision, because they were just following out the logic that had been developing since 1929, that had been developing for a long time and because you just follow that thought out as though there are no other thoughts. Just the logic of that thought ends with the Southern Baptist Convention saying Hooray for Roe v. Wade, a step forward in freedom.

Joseph Bottum:

And then the Southern Baptist Convention rethinks that. They stopped and say, wait a minute. What if we bring in other considerations? What if we bring in other thoughts? What if we do theology, which is the bringing in of other thoughts and then making things cohere in the Southern Baptist Convention fairly quickly, as such things go fairly quickly-

Albert Mohler:

About six or seven years.

Joseph Bottum:

The announcement.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

It was six or seven years, was it?

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. So, the situation as the Southern Baptist not out of trying to defend Southern Baptist because the resolutions of about 1972 and '73 indefensible. They actually were kind of worse than you described in one sense because one of the resolutions came up before Roe v. Wade, and basically kind of set the intellectual apparatus up that looks like Roe.

Albert Mohler:

And so, that's just even more horrible. But the fact is that that became that resolution or the resolutions of that era, but one in particular, as you say. It became the catalyst for a populist uprising in the Southern Baptist Convention. And so, that resolution was produced by elites. And they identified themselves increasingly in that mainline Protestant world, the elites, the people who led the seminary, I lead when I came, saw it as their aim to try to make it look like we were right there in the world with the Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary.

Albert Mohler:

But the conservative end, but that world, not that evangelical world, and all that changed radically within a period of a very short amount of time. And so, by the time you get to 1980, you've got a very clear repudiation of that previous resolution and a very pro-life statement. And so, I appreciate you drawing attention to and I just want to say, in some sense, it's worse. But it does show you that the people in the Southern Baptist Convention weren’t going to put up with that kind of nonsense, thankfully.

Joseph Bottum:

One of the things that happened in the '80s and the '90s, which I lived through more clearly, is in the churches, the distinctive Protestant charismas, the distinctive denominational identities began to blur in ways that I think were profoundly unhelpful, and in fact, dangerous.

Joseph Bottum:

The failure of Methodism. The failure of the Seventh Day Adventists, for instance, or the Disciples of Christ, which basically cease to exist after being one of the founding members of the National Council of Churches, one of the seven dominant of mainline Protestant churches. When was the last time you met a Disciple of Christ? I mean, it's extraordinary collapsed.

Joseph Bottum:

But these nominations had distinct confessional identities, charismas in the Catholic vocabulary. And they're passing, Al, as the diminution, it makes me sad that this way of Christian living has just faded away. Now, I don't want those. I don't want to live ... I'm not going to be a Methodist. But I can admire it at its peak.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I'm a Southern Baptist.

Joseph Bottum:

I'm not going to be a Presbyterian but I can admire it and speak. I'm not going to be a Pentecostal, but I can admire it. In fact, I often say, if I weren't a Catholic, if I had to be some form of Protestant, I probably would be a Pentecostal because I believe in the reality of the Holy Spirit and the rest of it.

Joseph Bottum:

All of that added up to a strange moment in the '80s and '90s, in which if you were a liberal in, say, the Episcopal church or the Presbyterian church, you identified more fully and completely with liberals in the other denominations than you did with conservatives in your own denomination, and increasingly became true for the conservatives.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. And I'm about to make that point for you and say I'm in pretty constant communication with evangelicals left in the United Methodist Church, which is almost interesting stories right now. And I have close family ties to Methodism. And as a Southern Baptist, I want to say that Methodism had about as much to do with the shaping of American culture as Baptists did, especially on the frontier and especially in the south.

Joseph Bottum:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

But when you look at where they are right now, I mean, the liberals, they gain control of the apparatus because they identified with a larger elite in the United States. And so, the problem is that the elites had the lawyers to establish the rules and they own the property, which leave these people trapped. And so, it's a very sad thing to see and it makes me by the way all the more ardently Baptist because we own our own property. And Baptists will divide like you say and de Tocqueville observed, but we don't have to leave everything behind to a liberal elite.

Joseph Bottum:

Can I come back to Rauschenbusch?

Albert Mohler:

Please do.

Joseph Bottum:

It fascinates me. I really and fascinates me to a degree that makes me unhappy with some of our friends Al for whom Rauschenbusch, they don't read him. His name is just a marker for evil.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Joseph Bottum:

And I've read him and thought about him. I think he's a brilliant rhetorician. But I also think he was a serious Christian. And he was preaching to people who had the Bible and knew the Bible. He was preaching to Protestant audiences. And his writing is filled with biblical references. He took the Bible incredibly seriously. He knew the Bible very well. He is a believer in any sense. And our friends who want to just use it as a marker of evil are just wrong. It's two generations later. And I think Mason saw this. That's why he's so important.

Joseph Bottum:

But the problem is with the theology of the Social Gospel Movement is not what manifests itself right there. Rauschenbusch came to an inner city parish or church in New York City and was radicalized by the weekly burials of children he had to oversee from the factories and the pollution of the rest of it. And he just became filled with a righteous anger, which I think was genuinely righteous.

Albert Mohler:

No, I get that and yet, I mean, Rauschenbusch I do see as the fountain of theological poison in many ways that ... I mean, it transformed the gospel. But the point is, had Rauschenbusch maintained an orthodox Christology and understanding of the gospel and applied it to the horrifying injustices he was seeing before his eyes every day, I think he would now be a heroic figure rather than a tragic figure. But, as you say, he could operate in a world in which he assumed that people had basic biblical impulses, but his own children and grandchildren, they transcended all of that.

Joseph Bottum:

Right. And this is why that theological move that he makes is so pernicious within two generations. Within one generation, you get kind of a generic Christianism out of this. Within two generations, you get rejection Christianity out of this.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Joseph Bottum:

And he's brilliant in his way, but he sets up what's going to happen. Now, he's not always careful. I mean, I think he is really smart. But smart is a second tier thinker and he's not Nietzsche. He is not John Henry Newman. He's not one of these great figures of intellectual life. But he's a good solid second tier thinker. And sometimes he's not careful.

Joseph Bottum:

So, he'll say, for instance, there's one passage which he regretted, in which he said, the idea that Christ died to alleviate the sins of a coal miner in Tennessee who gets drunk and beats his wife is ridiculous. What Christ dies for is to expose the social sins that ... And he regretted that. That was an overstatement, but it's an overstatement in a line with what he would say.

Joseph Bottum:

And in the book and elsewhere, I say what happened with the Social Gospel Movement is it starts with a very clear appreciation of a revelation, an ethical revolution in the revelation that the Christ event brings us and the Christ preaching brings us. But also the Christ event, I mean, they did think that his death and resurrection actually happened and are important.

Joseph Bottum:

And by our understanding that and understanding how Christ has broken open for us to see the social sins, we can climb up the ladder to the higher ledge of morality. And the metaphor I use, which I got from Wittgenstein, the metaphor I use is the trouble with ladders is once you've reached the higher ledge, you don't need the ladder anymore. If Christ is the ladder we needed to reach our high moral state, then once we're there, you don't need Christ anymore.

Albert Mohler:

No, that's a brilliant metaphor. What I was going to say just a few moments ago is that with Rauschenbusch, I like to compare him to a figure in ... Not exactly contemporaneous, but they overlapped a good deal in their influence, would be Charles Spurgeon in London.

Albert Mohler:

Because Spurgeon held to a very clear orthodox theological commitment, very clear. But at the same time, he started some of the most widespread philanthropic ministries. I mean, his church was Elephant and Castle. It was on the wrong side of the Thames. It was a church of the people. And he had dozens of charitable organizations directly under the school. I have one of his wife's receipt books for the orphanage.

Albert Mohler:

And by the way, Spurgeon's influence is still massive among evangelical Protestants and who, by the way, some of them will take his theology without his ministry to the poor and the needy, but nonetheless, there were countermodels.

Albert Mohler:

But the haunting thing about Rauschenbusch for me is the fact that there was not a strong orthodox equally passionate response that took into account and wasn't going to be satisfied with the burials of all those poor children.

Joseph Bottum:

The elites chose Rauschenbusch. They chose the social gospel line. When the sermon Shall the Fundamentalists Win is preached by… you just named him. What's his name?

Albert Mohler:

Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Joseph Bottum:

Right. And Fosdick emerges as the winner of that. But he has actually [crosstalk 00:49:39].

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

And who his defense counsel was.

Albert Mohler:

John Foster Dulles.

Joseph Bottum:

John Foster Dulles, who is as establishment a blue-blooded figure as you were ever going to meet.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Joseph Bottum:

And Rockefeller Jr. builds him Riverside Church. And so, the main or the elites of America, the old Protestant bluebloods, of which the Dulleses were one of the last families around, and the new wealth of the robber barons taking their place in the second generation among those elites.

Joseph Bottum:

And, by the way, most of those elites before the robber barons were funded by building the Erie Canal, which is why another way I connect [crosstalk 00:50:30].

Albert Mohler:

Your metaphor comes back. Yes, yeah.

Joseph Bottum:

But they choose Fosdick. They choose the social gospel. And there was unhappiness with Nietzsche and others. But it wouldn't rise up to the level that it could actually influence the culture.

Joseph Bottum:

And thus, the Social Gospel Movement was allowed to follow out its necessary progression, which will end with the collapse of mainline Protestant churches in every demographic and statistical measurement and produce these demons that have gone into politics, and infect young people and older people with enthusiasm, with radicalism, with a madness in search of resolution, and a hunger for salvation that can never be satisfied.

Albert Mohler:

Well, that deserves to be the last word in what has been an exhilarating conversation as always. Jody, thank you for joining with me in this conversation today. I want to tell you, I promised that we would get to your newest book, The Decline of the Novel, but I'm just going to have to ask because it raises many of these issues but takes them into an entirely different context that would be fascinating to unpack. So, if you'll allow, I'd like to do another conversation with you about that.

Joseph Bottum:

I'd love that, Al, because I do see the novel, the modern novel is something that the Protestants gave us and its failure, it comes from the same room. But as you say, that's a conversation for another day.

Albert Mohler:

It is. But I told one of my colleagues just before this conversation today that your new book, The Decline of the Novel, was a book that I regretted only because it had to come to an end because I felt like I was talking with many friends. But anyway, we'll hold that for another conversation.

Albert Mohler:

But I really want to appreciate the mind you bring to this and the fact that as I get older, conversations like this just become more valuable and treasured by me. And the fact that we've had conversation through the years just makes it better. And I hope by God's grace, we can have many more.

Joseph Bottum:

Thanks, Al. I enjoyed this a great deal.

Albert Mohler:

God bless you.

Joseph Bottum:

Thank you.

Albert Mohler:

A central part of our Christian intellectual responsibility is to try to understand what is going on around us in the world, to come to a true account of what's happening and what these things mean, to try to understand the currents that are shaping the society around us, and of course, to try to determine our Christian responsibility in the midst of this very urgent age.

Albert Mohler:

That should lead us to some really important conversations. I feel like today's conversation was one that was not only fascinating, but also important, raising an incredible array of issues that thoughtful Christians ought to think about. And of course, it's not just a matter of thinking about these issues and the abstract. It's a matter of looking at our own lives, our own marriages, our own churches, our own families, our own communities to see how these issues are being framed and reframed and sometimes unframed.

Albert Mohler:

But the conversation today with Jody Bottum helps to underline I hope certainly does for me the fact that there are no genuinely nontheological conversations. If you're talking about issues of importance, inevitably, you end up talking about theology, but rarely as well or as interesting as that opportunity today. Thanks again to Jody Bottum for joining with me today for Thinking in Public. And thank you for joining with us.

Albert Mohler:

If you enjoyed this conversation, you will find more than 100 of them at albertmohler.com under the tab Thinking in Public. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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