Progressive is the New Puritan

Joseph Bottum has offered a weak (in the sense of historically shallow) version of this argument in his An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America (New York: Image, 2014), where he attempts to account for the decline of the mainline Protestant churches in America over the last half century or so. As Bottum tells it, it was above all the new social gospel preached by the Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch around the turn of the twentieth century that was ultimately responsible for the loss of confidence among American Protestants in themselves as Christians, if not in themselves as cultural elites. The story is complicated and involves lots of different currents in American culture from the late nineteenth century to the present, but the result, as Bottum convincingly shows, has been a profound transformation in the way in which American elites identify as religious or (mostly) not. The real question, left to a certain extent unanswered, is why they were so susceptible to this change in the first place.

In Bottum's telling, Rauschenbusch's great innovation was to replace the supernatural agents--the demons and angels, ghosts, blessed relics, priestly powers, sacramental realities, and prayers for the dead--of the older Christian worldview (there was a deep strain of anti-Catholicism at play in much late nineteenth-century discussion of "real" religion) with a new set of metaphysical realities against which Christians were enjoined to fight. These realities, Rauschenbusch announced in his Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), were bigotry, power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, the madness of the mob, militarism, and class contempt. In Rauschenbusch's telling, it was these six social forces or sins which had come together to crucify Jesus and which continued to wage war against the world to the present day. As critics at the time pointed out, and what Rauschenbusch never clarified, was what role Jesus, never mind the Church, had in combating these forces, given that all of the sins had been already clearly revealed in Jesus' death. Rather, as Rauschenbusch would have it, the real battle between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Evil took place in each individual soul, to win which one needed above all to concentrate on transforming one's own view of the world so as to be able to perceive the realities of social injustice. In Rauschenbusch's words: "The fundamental contribution of every man is the change of his own personality."

It is this version of Christianity that, Bottum argues, has become dominant in American (post-) Protestant culture since. In Bottum's words:
Freed from the stultifying churches, freed from any theological requirement for faith in Jesus, freed even from the need for any particular action, [American Protestants] found that salvation demands only the sense that, in personality, one has chosen the right side of the almost Manichean division between the supernatural entities of the coming Kingdom of Heaven and the present Kingdom of Evil. All that is necessary for self-esteem, for the certainty of individual salvation, is possession of the class markers of social suspicion that indicate one belongs to the fellowship of the redeemed....
In the end, for the members of the new class--and for their post-Protestant descendants, their heirs and assigns--what matters is not what one does but how one perceives oneself to have rejected the metaphysical evil of bigotry, power, militarism, the groupthink of the vulgar mob. To let go of belief in the actual, all-determining existence of these evil things would mean, for the new class, the loss of self-esteem--indeed, the loss of all sense of the moral self. It would mean the end of confidence and the return of anxiety about salvation. What imaginable motive, what possible change in the world, could ever be sufficient to make them abandon their faith in the social sins of civilization?
This vision of themselves, Bottum further argues, is what has driven "conservatives to distraction and earned the scornful modern use of the word elites":
In their moral and spiritual certainty, the post-Protestants captured the credentialing machinery of American culture as a class fiefdom--and formed a new class that rent-seeks, hoards privilege, self-righteously congratulates itself, and arrogantly despises other classes as thoroughly as any group in American history ever has.
Bottum himself is Catholic, so I am willing to forgive him the tendency to lump all Protestants together--Baptists and Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians. The problem, of course, is that these post-Protestant elites look down on everybody who does not adhere to their vision of the world, most particularly, Bottum argues, their sense of cultural relativism, according to which every culture other than their own is judged by its own standards, whereas theirs is taken to be the font of all evils (which, come to think of it, is judging their own culture by its own standards, but these standards cannot be applied elsewhere). The result, still in Bottum's words, is an inflexibility indistinguishable from intolerance for anyone who would dare challenge their "class-marking manners."

It used to be, Bottum remarks, that "you could pretty much tell the Americans who had begun the descent into the post-Protestant air simply by asking them to name something they thought was beautiful--to which they would invariably respond, not with any particular object, but with a quick and pious declaration that 'Different cultures think different things are beautiful,' or 'Everyone has a right to their own opinion.'" Now, however, the post-Protestant elites have done such a thorough job of training
every school child in America...in the deferential gestures of relativism [that] the effort it takes to get any of them to use their self-proclaimed right to an opinion can be almost comic....  What remains most interesting, however, is the moral fervor with which such implacable relativism is spoken--and the lack of deference actually present in the language of deference. Bonnie Paisley, my friend in Oregon, felt genuinely offended when I asked her to name something, anything, beautiful. Aesthetic topics almost never occur to Reynard Jones [who lives in Cleveland] on his blog. Gil Winslow in Upstate New York, Ellen Doorn [who grew up in Michigan] in Texas: They want, they need, to feel a kind of superiority to the backward types who lack their class-marking manners. And the strong expression of the tenets of relativism seems often to provide the feeling.
This is why I say Bottum's argument is historically weak. Throughout, Bottum speaks of his friends (his primary examples of the post-Protestant worldview) as if they are generically American, but in fact, if you listen carefully, you realize they are nothing of the sort.

Bottum needs to look at a map. More particularly, this map:

Map by Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011)

What his friends all have in common is not that they are post-Protestants. It is that they are Yankees. (The Left Coast, including Oregon, is effectively a Yankee outpost, "New England on the Pacific." Bottum himself lives in eastern South Dakota, exactly on the edge between Yankeedom and the Midlands. He says that his friend Bonnie grew up Presbyterian in Iowa, but the point about Woodard's eleven nations is that they are cultural, not strictly ethnic regions. Fischer has noted how his own "Protestant stereotypes about the culture of Judaism were utterly exploded by his Brandeis students who have included Yankee Jews, Philadelphia Jews, southern Jews and, most startling of all, backslapping Texas Jews in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats." Cleveland, Michigan, and Upstate New York are both squarely in Yankeedom.)

Which means, they are Puritans. In Fischer's words, talking about the reform movements of the early twentieth century (Albion's Seed, p. 867):
Regional cultures also defined the reach of reform impulses during this period. Two very different reform movements developed in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century--Populism and Progressivism. Both were national in their aspirations, but regional in their appeal. The Populist movement was strong in the south and west, but weak in the north and east and nearly nonexistent in New England. The emotional violence of its rhetoric, the intensity of its agrarian reforms and the flamboyant individuality of its leaders brought success in one region and failure in another.
The Progressive movement was very different from Populism in its political style and cultural base. Progressivism developed mainly in the northern and northeastern states. A large proportion of its leaders were men and women of Yankee stock, who traced their ancestry to the Puritan great migration [1630-41]. Progressivism tended to be rationalist and moralist. Its approach to social problems was intellectual; its solutions were institutional. Generally it adopted an idea of ordered liberty which was consistent with New England's Puritan past. The cultural style of the Progressive movement made it strong in one part of America, and weak in others.
Think of everything you have ever heard about the Puritans. How they left England (more specifically, East Anglia) to come to the New World in order to found the perfect society, a Zion in the wilderness that would be a model for the world, "a city upon a hill" purified of the compromises and failings of the Anglican Church (technically, Puritans were Anglicans) they had left behind. How they first went to Holland because the Dutch were actually tolerant of religious diversity, but left because they found the Dutch too tolerant, and so they struck out for the wilderness across the Atlantic instead. How they persecuted the Quakers who tried to settle in their midst, cutting off their ears, slitting their nostrils, and branding their faces with the letter H ("heretic"). How they made adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, sodomy, and even (in Woodard's words) "teenage rebellion" punishable by death. How they valued education, establishing some of the earliest schools in the colonies so as to teach their children Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. How they valued community and established the town meeting as a core of their government. How they disdained the aristocracy of the Virginia gentry and purposefully divided their lands in a way that (again, Woodard) "was surprisingly egalitarian." How although intolerant of difference, their communities were nevertheless "shockingly democratic" in their suffrage, and "the rich and the wellborn...given no special privileges either in politics or before the law." How they believed not merely "they were God's chosen people," but that
God had charged each and every one of them to propagate his will on a corrupt and sinful world. All Yankee Calvinists were thought to have a "calling," a vocation through which they would, priestlike, further God's work. They had to be constantly vigilant in the performance of their calling, be it as a missionary, a merchant, or a cobbler. Idleness was ungodly. Personal wealth was expected to be reinvested in one's good works--professional or philanthropic--to bring the world in closer accord with the divine plan. Other societies and cultures would presumably see the "light on the hill" and wish to conform; woe be to those who did not (Woodard, American Nations, pp. 61-62).
Sound familiar? We tend to think first about the Puritans' purported squeamishness about sex (they weren't actually), so it is easy to miss how constant the cultural forms have remained. It is true that Yankees no longer talk about American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny in the way they once did. But they still talk about how we need to "share the wealth around" and how it "takes a village" to make a world. And such talk still seems just as oppressive to those who do not share their vision of ordered liberty as it did back when the Yankees called themselves Puritans. The names have changed, but the cultural patterns remain. And the Scots Irish still want to be left alone.

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