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Post-Christian Fundamentalism & The American Mutaween

Michael Brendan Dougherty reviews Joseph Bottum’s new book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of America. Excerpts:

Bottum’s thesis is that there really isn’t a new American caste. This “class” that has outsized influence on America’s moral and spiritual life is roughly the same class that has always had it: Mainline Protestants, only now without the doctrinal Protestantism or the churchgoing.

Of course, on one level, the startling truth about the past 50 years of American social life is the collapse of Mainline Protestantism. In 1965, more than 50 percent of Americans belonged to the country’s historic Protestant congregations. Now less than 10 percent do, and that number continues to drop. But Mainline Protestantism long existed as a column of American society, able to support the American project and criticize it prophetically at the same time. It would be even more startling if the spiritual energies it captained, and the anxieties it defined, ceased to exist the moment people walked out the door.


For Bottum, what is remarkable is the way the spiritual experience of Rauschenbush’s “social gospel” is so like the experience of modern liberalism. According to Rauschenbusch, one opposes these social sins through direct action, legislative amelioration, and simply recognizing their effect and sympathizing with their victims. Rauschenbusch wrote, “An experience of religion through the medium of solidaristic social feeling is an experience of unusually high ethical quality, akin to that of the prophets of the Bible.”

The post-Protestants Bottum identifies have just that, “a social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.”

These Post-Christian Fundamentalists — or Post-Christianists, if I were in touch with my inner Sully — have their own seminaries (colleges and universities) and are unusually fervent in their moralism. So says Freddie de Boer, himself a leftist and an academic, who worries about the intolerance of free speech he sees in his milieu. Here’s something from his first salvo:

I know some people will assume I’m speaking to some sad fringe here. But I have been amazed at how mainstream these anti-free speech efforts have become. I have been amazed not just because of the immorality of trying to ban free though, free expression, and free assembly, or because these efforts reverse centuries of the assumed work of the left, but because of how easily this could backfire, in a world where our movements against sexism and racism and homophobia are still so fragile and contested. Ten years ago, the Republican party ran on a platform of opposition to gay marriage, and enjoyed enormous electoral success, and yet people trust the majority so deeply that they are willing to hand it the power to ban unpopular speech. My people: we are not nearly so popular or powerful as it can sometimes seem, when we engage with those we agree with online. Sometimes, the people who are arguing against free expression know that; they recount in terrible detail all the ways in which this remains a deeply unjust world. And yet when it comes to these kinds of political debates, they seem to forget, arguing always for a retrenchment back to the already convinced, and responding  angrily to the notion that it is our responsibility to argue publicly and effectively for what is right. It’s a central contradiction of this movement, and something I’ll never understand.

From his follow-up, in which he addressed people on the left who said that he was either making up the threat or exaggerating it. Excerpt:

Please believe me when I say: it is not at all unusual, for me, to encounter liberals and leftists who speak out about issues of social justice like feminism and racism and similar who do not believe that controversial speech (what they call hate speech) should be legally expressible. You are free to question how prevalent that view is. But I encounter it all the time, and not just online. Being in a PhD program in the humanities, I have regular exposure to people who feel that the right to free expression does not or should not include racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas. And their definition of racism, sexism, and homophobia tends to be expansive. Indeed, I was motivated to write in large part because I just came from a large, national conference. I met lots of cool people, like I always do, and came away inspired, as I always do. But I was also disturbed, because of the casual way in which some people asserted their belief that people who express beliefs they abhor– that I abhor, that I hope all good people abhor– should be shouted down, should be coerced into silence, should be barred from entry into public forums, should be legally or otherwise prevented from expressing those beliefs. I cannot tell you how small their relative number is. I can only tell you that they exist, in my communities, and they are not alone.

It sounds like Freddie has encountered the Error Has No Rights phenomenon, as well as the Law Of Merited Impossibility, which, modified to fit this circumstance, is: “It’s not happening, and boy, do those bigots deserve what they’re getting.”

I appreciate that Freddie, who, like I said, is a leftist and an academic, but who also favors free speech, has written what he’s written, because in my experience on this blog, many left-liberals flat-out deny it. One lesson conservatives are learning from all this is that liberals don’t mean it when they seek “dialogue” and “tolerance.” They are only looking for a foothold, and when they get it, and feel strong enough, they will suppress conservative opposition in the name of justice and morality. Moral: don’t talk to them, or give them a forum within the organization, because once in power, they will use it to suppress and oppress their opponents.

Generally speaking, I don’t want to live in that world, but I also don’t want to be a fool in the face of what’s happening. This didn’t start yesterday, either. Read what Boston civil rights lawyers Alan Dershowitz and Harvey Silverglate told me in the year 2000 about their town’s refusal, both in government and in media, to defend or protect the speech rights of a pair of Massachusetts parents who objected to gay-sex instruction under the state’s public school auspices. Error had no rights in Boston well over a decade ago.

Sooner or later, there will be a backlash against our own post-Christian American mutaween (the Saudi religious police). And it’s going to be ferocious.

[H/T: Sully]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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