Ross Douthat on Joseph Bottom on the Death of Protestant America

Recently Joseph Bottum wrote a very interesting essay in First Things entitled “The Death of Protestant America: A Political theory of the Protestant Mainline”, PSA+ turned me on to Ross Douthat’s response over at the Atlantic, and I think he’s teased out something important here:

The Norman Vincent Peale bit, I think, is particularly telling, because it gets at something that I think is often missed about the current religious landscape: Namely, the extent to which Schori’s theological premises are shared across the culture-war divide, by Christians who oppose gay marriage and abortion and voted eagerly for George W. Bush as well as by liberal Protestants who consider the contemporary GOP an abomination. Peale’s heirs occupy the pulpits of what remains of the Protestant mainline, but they preach from the dais at numerous evangelical megachurches as well. The people who read Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer and The Prayer of Jabez may be more politically conservative then the people who read A Wing and a Prayer, and read certain passages of Genesis and Leviticus more literally, but the theology they’re imbibing is roughly the same sort of therapeutic mush. Indeed, the big difference between the prosperity gospel that Osteen and his ilk are peddling and Schori’s liberal Episcopalianism has less to do with any theological principle and more to do with what aspect of American life they want God to validate.

Ross Douthat (July 24, 2008) – The American Heresy (Religion).

  • Hotspur

    Two-word answer: that’s America.

    It always has been like that since the first Puritans landed. As much as all those loyal to the underlying principles of catholic (universal) Christianity don’t like to admit…people come here (sometimes) to go their own way…

    I subscribe to the thinking that “mainstream protestant” American culture was a cultural midrash in the sense that the television programme “Leave it to Beaver” reflected real life in the 1950’s. There are truthful aspects to it…but it wasn’t always quite as portrayed on the show (my father used to comment that the character of Eddie Haskell would have been “pounded into sand” by fellow teens in those days…)

    Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Baptists and Jews in Rhode Island…lots and lots of Mormons in Utah…

    Fast-forward: Episcopal Church Rite one fortresses in the Sewanee south…Rite three “spiritual centres” on the west coast…Olsteen on one television channel….Oprah pitching new age stuff on the other…we’ve been there and done that since day one…just don’t like to admit it.

    Bottom line: we don’t have to agree with the theologies, but it’s the real America. If you don’t like it, join the battle and fight the good fight. That’s America too…

    (PS: speaking of fighting the good fight…I’m teaching my daughter how to ride a bike at a Nashville park. There is literally 100+ mostly Hispanic and a few Arab immigrants with their kids outside playing either soccer or on the gym equipment there every night…Zero waspish types (we’re it…) I look at this crowd and say to myself “where’s the ECUSA padre passing out cold water, popsicles and free literature about a local church from the back of a pickup under a sign?”. Must the Jews always see the opportunities? Just shoot me an e-mail if you want the location.)

  • Jody+


    I think you’re right that this is quintessentially American–after all, it was an American context that gave rise to it and fed it. While freedom, choice, a belief in merit etc… are all American virtues, as is good old competition–including in the realm of ideas–I don’t think that necessarily means every tendency fueled by these virtues is itself virtuous. But, I am thankful for what you point out: if we don’t like it, unlike many places in the world, we have the freedom to try and convince others.