"An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America"


An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum. Image Books (February 11, 2014)

We live in a profoundly spiritual age–but in a very strange way, different from every other moment of our history. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand on the side of morality–to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

Or so Joseph Bottum argues in An Anxious Age, an account of modern America as a morality tale, formed by its spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.

Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber’s sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies in contemporary social class, adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave it meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls “The Poster Children,” Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old Mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors’ Christianity. Turning to “The Swallows of Capistrano,” the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories–and later defeats–of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in public life.

Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

Interviews and Presentations

Reviews and Discussion

  • Book Review of Joseph Bottum, ‘An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America’, by Todd Zywicki. The Volokh Conspiracy 12/02/14:

    [T]here is one thesis that [Bottum] doesn’t consider that I think contributes much of the explanation of the decline of the importance of the Protestant Mainline, which is the thesis developed by Shelby Steele is his great book “White Guilt.” I think Steele’s argument provides the key to unlocking not only the decline of the Protestant Mainline but also the timing, and why the decline of the Protestant Mainline has been so much more precipitous than Evangelicals and Catholics, as well as why anti-Evangelical and anti-Catholic bigotry is so socially acceptable among liberal elites. …

  • Book Review: An Anxious Age, by Jonathan Bishop. Ethika Politika 09/09/14. “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America is a dark and disturbing book, one that has more in common with the final chapter of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions — a recognition that the relativistic and post-Christian forces are in control and will be for conceivably quite some time.”
  • The Puritans Among Us, by Mary Eberstadt. National Review 04/21/14:

    An Anxious Age abounds in logic and clarification (and for that reason among others, it was derelict of the book’s publisher to omit footnotes and an index, both of which would have helped to signal its scholarly nature). Even so, it is the book’s metaphors that will haunt the reader after he puts it down. Who else would describe Protestantism in the United States as “our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape”? Likely no one — but the image brings to vivid and unexpected life a thousand Pew Research reports on declining attendance and the rise in “nones.” Similarly, the author’s unspooling of the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano as a metaphor for explaining what has happened to Catholicism in America is not only arresting but convincing, succeeding both as religious sociology and as literary trope.

  • Book Review: An Anxious Age by Geraldo Russo. Washington Times 04/01/14. “As Tocqueville and others have recognized, American religion and American exceptionalism have proceeded together. Now that they have been sundered, other choices present themselves. “An Anxious Age” explains how we can make the best of what confronts us.”
  • The Rise of Secular Religion, by David P. Goldman. The American Interest 03/17/14:

    This is a work of deep pessimism, albeit mitigated by faith in divine intervention, and its author reveals his innermost thoughts only in parable. It is a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike. It is to be hoped that its dark tone will not discourage those who are more likely to seek encouragement than instruction.

  • An Anxious Author, by Greg Forster. The Public Discourse 03/31/14:

    Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age is a bad book with a good book trapped inside it, struggling to get out. Bottum offers insightful observations that challenge prevailing assumptions about the nature and history of secular progressivism in America. Unfortunately, his main arguments are underdeveloped and disorganized, and the book’s appeal is limited by its prejudice against Protestantism. But the greatest disappointment is Bottum’s failure to practice the Christian virtue of hope.

    • American Hope: Don’t Conflate Political Culture and Christianity, by Joseph Bottum. [Reply to Greg Forster] The Public Discourse 04/10/14. “… a forced smile and a Mrs. Rogers optimism about Americanist politics: I just don’t feel enough anxiety to fake it. A calm hope in Christ Jesus and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin seems enough to be going on with.”
  • Rise of the Poster Children, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The University Bookman Spring 2014:

    An Anxious Age incorporates a number of separately published articles and essays, and sometimes the seams are visible. The reader most likely will not mind the digressions and set pieces that don’t relate to the overall argument, however, since the writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters, and his conclusion that the Pope was “the freest man in the twentieth century” is both satisfying and earned. His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey, and effectively underscores Bottum’s argument that today’s Catholic intellectuals are at a disadvantage without the culture that could be taken for granted in the past. The book’s detours into figures such as Rauschenbusch, Max Weber, James Pike, and Avery Dulles are also fascinating.

  • An Anxious Age—and an Antagonistic Future?, by Christopher White. Catholic World Report April 13, 2014:

    Bottum’s work is primarily descriptive in nature and does not offer any hard predictions for what the future might hold from here. There is indeed the possibility that we might hope to begin toreintegrate the public square with a religious language where the poster children of post-Protestant America are convinced by the Catholic converts—or are at least hospitable to their convictions. But that remains unresolved. Considering the widespread skepticism and even hostility in which religious expression is viewed in America, it’s seemingly unlikely. And if this, indeed, the future that awaits us, it’s highly probably that this anxious age in which we live will give rise to an antagonistic one to follow.

  • The End of Exceptionalism, by Eric Jackson. Thoughts and Ideas 3/28/14:

    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.

  • The Social Gospel Paradox Divest This:

    for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough. Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins [“bigotry, arrogance of power, corruption of justice for personal gain, mob madness and violence, militarism and class contempt”]. In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

    Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ. And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

    An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm. For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

  • Reviewed by Matt McCullough 9Marks 3/25/14:

    Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.

    Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway.

  • A conservative who was right about Occupy, by Nathan Schneider. WagingNonviolence.com. 02/15/14:

    That a critic like Bottum, most at home in conservative quarters, credits Occupy for inspiring his book is to me a reminder of why the movement caught hold of me and so many others so fiercely at the outset: it had the potential to recenter our politics and our discourse and our spectrum. Its failures were less failures of aspiration than of accomplishment — that it wasn’t diverse enough, or empowering enough, or transformative enough to live up to its own transcendental ambitions.

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