'An Anxious Age'

Joseph Bottum's View of Mainline Protestantism

An Anxious Age
The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America
Joseph Bottum
Image, $25, 296 pp.

Those who welcome a clearly stated thesis will find Joseph Bottum’s new book highly gratifying. “The death of the Mainline [in Protestantism] is the central political fact of the last hundred and fifty years of American history,” Bottum writes in his provocative account of religious life in this country. “The lost Mainline is who we are. It’s what defines us.” To make sure we get it, Bottum, a wide-ranging author, practicing Catholic, and former editor of First Things, opens his thesaurus to search for variations on “death.” Turns out Mainline Protestantism not only died; it “crumpled,” “collapsed,” and ended in “catastrophic destruction.” The collapse of establishment Protestantism as the American civil religion, Bottum asserts, has left a deep void that continues to send seismic ripples of unease through the culture.

One senses in Bottum’s view of Protestantism a mixture of resentment and Schadenfreude. One can criticize him for hyperbole. But I’d begin by questioning the words “we” and “us” in his thesis. The author himself notes that the Mainline includes just upwards of 20 million people—about one-fifteenth of our current population. To give him his due, his argument is more cultural than statistical. He argues that many Americans who never were part of Mainline Protestantism, Protestantism itself, Christianity, or indeed formal religion in any observable sense, have lived off the...

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About the Author

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.