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The Post-Protestant Age and the Spirit of America

The Post-Protestant Age and the Spirit of America

In the Week.com, Michael Dougherty explores some of the roots of the Social Gospel and compares them to today’s liberal agenda in a review of Joseph Bottum’s, “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.” Dougherty writes,

For Bottum, what is remarkable is the way the spiritual experience of Rauschenbusch’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.”

With the proper feeling comes a proper sense of guilt, and a missionary’s zeal to correct wrongs. Over a century ago Rauschenbusch wrote, “If a man has drawn any religious feeling from Christ, his participation in the systematized oppression of civilization will, at least at times, seem an intolerable burden and guilt.” Bottum deftly notes that in theological terms this signals “a nearly complete transfer of Christian fear and Christian assurance into a sensibility of the need for reform, a mysticism of the social order — the anxiety about salvation resolved by ecstatic transport into the feeling of social solidarity.”

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.

Dougherty’s full article is available here.

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