Today’s American liberalism, it is often remarked, amounts to a secular religion: it has its own sacred texts and taboos, Crusades and Inquisitions. The political correctness that undergirds it, meanwhile, can be traced back to the past century’s liberal Protestantism. Conservatives, of course, routinely scoff that liberals’ ersatz religion is inferior to the genuine article.
Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.
Bottum’s thesis is that there really isn’t a new American caste. This “class” that has outsize 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.
…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.”
…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.
Saying that something is “like a religion” is like comparing statesmen to Hitler — too general to be useful or illuminating, and more likely to provoke a lot of useless tangents. Assuming that Bottum is more interested with tracing the history of secularism and liberalism in America than pursuing equivalence for its own sake, this does sound like it would be an interesting book.