July 8, 2020


The religious roots of a new progressive era: Welcome to the post-Protestant Reformations (Ross Douthat, July 7, 2020, The New York Time)

[I] may have underestimated a different religious tribe -- the direct heirs of the Protestant Mainline, the "post-Protestant" subjects of Joseph Bottum's "An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America," a book I commend to anyone interested in understanding what is happening to liberalism right now.

Bottum makes two points of particular relevance to our moment. First, he argues that the Mainline moral sensibility has survived even as Mainline metaphysical belief has ebbed, and that you can draw a clear line from the Social Gospel of the late 19th century to the preoccupations of social justice movements today.

This point was plausible but somewhat abstract when the book came out in 2014. But the palpable spiritual dimension of so much social justice activism, before and especially after the George Floyd killing -- the rhetoric of conversion and confession and self-scrutiny, the iconoclasm and occasional anti-Catholicism, the idealization of communities of virtue and the accusatory frenzy of online witch hunts -- has made that religious lineage impossible to ignore.

Second, Bottum stresses that it's more useful to think of the post-Protestants -- the "poster children," he sometimes calls them -- as an elect rather than an elite, defined more by their education and their moral sensibility than by their overt wealth or power. They are not identical to the managerial elite discerned by other theorists of late-modern class hierarchy; instead, they stand adjacent and somewhat underneath, as adjuncts, consultants, bureaucrats and activists -- advisers and petitioners and critics rather than formal leaders, with more economic precarity and moral zeal than those they criticize or serve.

This point, too, is particularly useful to understanding the new power struggle within the liberal upper class. In theological terms, we're watching the post-Protestant elect wrestle power away from the more secular elite, which long paid lip service to the creed of social justice but never really evinced true faith.

And that power, once claimed, could be used the way the old Mainline used its power: not to replace liberal political forms but to infuse them with a specific set of moral commitments and to establish the terms on which important cultural debates are held and settled. Who should have sex with whom, and under what conditions and constraints? Which religious ideas should be favored, and which dismissed with prejudice? What conceptions of the country's past should be promoted? Which visions of the good life taught in schools? What titles or pronouns should respectable people use? Just as the old denominations once answered these questions for Americans, their post-Protestant heirs aspire to answer them today.

If they succeed where the religious right failed, it will be because post-Protestantism enjoys an intimate relationship with the American establishment rather than representing an insurgency of outsider groups, because centrist failures and Trumpian moral squalor removed rivals from its path, and because its moral message is better suited to what younger Americans already believe.

If they fail, it will probably be because of three weaknesses: the absence of a convincing metaphysics to ground post-Protestantism's zealous moralism; the difficulty of drawing coherence out of its multiplicity of causes; and the absence of institutional embodiments that make for deep loyalty and intergenerational transmission.

Posted by at July 8, 2020 7:21 PM