An Anxious Age

Two reviews of Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America have come out in the last few days, giving rise to some interesting commentary on where we are now and how we got here. From Michael Brendan Dougherty’s review at The Week, the plausible suggestion that “checking one’s privilege” has become a secular sacrament of sorts:

Can we not hear in the progressive’s soul-searching examination of his own “privilege,” as well as his unconscious participation in structural injustice, an echo of Rauschenbusch’s words? Whereas Catholics make an examination of conscience before confession, and confess their personal sins before promising to amend their life, today’s progressives examine their place in the social structure of oppression, and then vow to reform society. That is what it means to have a “social gospel without the gospel” — to be motivated by religious impulses, but believe it is entirely secular.

Incidentally, something of this nature under-girds the current hysteria surrounding a supposed “rape-culture”, particularly on college campuses. On the surface, the idea seems risible. Yes the number of incidents is not zero, but the idea that university campuses, the most suffocatingly politically correct places on earth, are also places where rape is generally deemed to be OK is ridiculous. But here we see precisely this transition away from the idea of individual guilt for actions freely chosen and towards a belief in collective guilt for some structural oppression. It serves the progressive’s sense of their own righteousness, the hope that they can triumph through activism, and not least, the opportunity to spread the blame for rape beyond the rapist to all those who stubbornly refuse to acquiesce to their politicized demands, whatever they might be. Even though many of those who doubt the existence of a “rape culture” would be appalled by far less serious sexual transgressions.

But back to the original topic. At, Matt McCullough is more critical of Bottum’s history,

I’m not convinced that Rauschenbusch, even in a representative sense, should be called the “single most significant figure since the Civil War” as the “sign of the entire age” (38). Nor am I convinced that his Christianity and the Social Crisis was a book that “quickly came to dominate its moment” as “the watershed that divided Protestants into conservatives and liberals” (54-55). I believe Bottum overplays Rauschenbush’s significance, and the significance of Mainline Protestantism in general.

But overall, he agrees with Dougherty regarding the main thrust of the book and the trajectory of non-doctrinal Protestantism:

First, according to Bottum Rauschenbusch redefined sin and redemption. Sin is not an offense against God but an anti-social force, “the evil of bigotry, power, corrupt law, the mob, militarism, and class contempt” (66). Redemption is not peace with God by faith in Christ, but “essentially an attitude of mind,” a “personal, interior rejection” of the forces of evil in society (66). To quote Rauschenbusch, this “redeemed personality” is the “fundamental contribution of every man” to what he called the “progressive regeneration of social life” (quoted on p. 70).

This divide between two sharply contrasting understanding of sin explains a great deal about the contemporary social and political climate.