Friday, March 28, 2014

The End of Exceptionalism

The “catastrophic decline of the Mainline Protestant churches that had once been central institutions in [American] public life” is far and away the most important development of the last fifty years.  So argues Joseph Bottum in his thoughtful new book, An Anxious Age

Other sociologists, working from materialistic assumptions, have noted the decay of civic virtue and social capital, but Bottum, using the insights of Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, focuses his attention on the cause of the rot.  Protestantism gave America “social unity and cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations.”  This unity and definition provided a common vocabulary with which to navigate secular spheres. 

Bottum uses the image of a stool to envisage the American experiment, with democracy, capitalism and Protestantism as the three legs.  Without the support provided by the Protestant churches, democracy and capitalism—that is, our political and economic arrangements—must bear more weight. 

The effects can be seen everywhere.  One example on which Bottum comments is the degraded form of our national discourse.  Without the framework provided by Protestantism, we can no longer make “rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree.”  Our political opponents aren't merely wrong; they are evil.

This tendency is typified by a particular group of post-Protestants, whom Bottum dubs the Poster Children.  They belong to Flannery O'Connor's Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, which worships no God and preaches a sort of “Christian morality without the tommyrot,” to quote John Humphrey.  Above all, its adherents believe themselves to be morally superior—not merely elite, but elect.  In the process, they have also transferred “the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and unto food.”  Drinking soda and eating meat are venial sins, with smoking and obesity warranting the post-Christian equivalent of damnation.

In the second half of the book, Bottum traces the history of Catholicism in American during the decline of Protestantism.  Catholicism was always seen as something foreign—which, in a sense, it was.  This gave rise to American anti-Catholic sentiment.  But the same forces that undermined Protestantism also swept away a good deal of the bias against the Church of Rome, as evidenced by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Catholicism found itself trying to occupy the space left by Protestantism.  It failed to serve as a replacement for a variety of reasons, ranging from the tumult of Vatican II to the priest sex abuse scandals.  There's no indication that the author regards this failure as inevitable, as indeed it may not have been.  But if the language of Catholicism was too irregular, too alien, to serve as an adequate substitute in a Protestant country, what hope is there in one that is post-Protestant?

Moreover, the Swallows of Capistrano—Bottum's name for American Catholics—have been scattered.  He hypothesizes hopefully that they may soon return to play a larger role in American culture.  And his book ends by noting that these Swallows and his Poster Children might well get along because of “the middle-class etiquette, the good manners of niceness” that they share.  This is, well, tommyrot.  Our books must conclude with just this sort of boilerplate.  First problem, then solution—no matter how insufficient.

As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap.  America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so.  Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.