|Californian community activist Allen Hernandez, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus on his left arm and the Mayan god Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl in Aztec) on the right, via Religion News.|
“Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith,” Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, “and I don’t care what it is.”
Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and "Protestans qui ne croyent rien [Protestants who don't believe anything]." Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.
Could my Answer be understood, by any candid Reader or Hearer, to recommend, to all the others, the general Principles, Institutions or Systems of Education of the Roman Catholicks? Or those of the Quakers? Or those of the Presbyterians? Or those of the Menonists? Or those of the Methodists? or those of the Moravians? Or those of the Universalists? or those of the Philosophers? No.
The general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.
if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the bones of the house that all Americans inhabited, then the Protestant Mainline was a combination interior decorator, building inspector, homeowners’ association and zoning committee. Any question that the liberal order didn’t answer, across most of our history, was answered by Protestant consensus or litigated by intra-Protestant debate. (What were the limits of religious liberty? Should society regulate sex, and how? Should society regulate alcohol consumption, and how? What values should be taught in schools and universities?) And when the Mainline couldn’t come to an agreement, as in the long theological dispute over slavery and racial equality — well, then part of the house burned down and had to be repeatedly reconstructed.
all that belongs to the past, because in the decades after Eisenhower, the Mainline suddenly collapsed — declining numerically and losing overt influence in all the institutions, elite and local alike, that it once animated and defined. What took its place, in the upper echelons on the meritocracy, was an assumption that liberalism didn’t need a religious ghost in its machine, that you could just have a liberal culture instead of a Protestant culture, and all the important questions could be worked out through reasoned arguments that required no theological priors, no Bible-bothering, no authority higher than the Supreme Court or capital-S Science.
This was a naïve view, and to the extent it was actually operationalized it generated an arid, soulless liberalism, a meritocracy short on wisdom and memory, animated by unhappy status-seeking and aspiring only to its own perpetuation.
But there have also been attempts to replace the Mainline, to infuse a different deeply felt religious faith into the architecture of American society. The first was the alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals, the ecumenical “religious right” that rose with Ronald Reagan and peaked with George W. Bush.
But I may have underestimated a different religious tribe — the direct heirs of the Protestant Mainline, the “post-Protestant” subjects of Joseph Bottum’s “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America”,a book I commend to anyone interested in understanding what is happening to liberalism right now.
Bottum makes two points of particular relevance to our moment. First, he argues that the Mainline moral sensibility has survived even as Mainline metaphysical belief has ebbed, and that you can draw a clear line from the Social Gospel of the late 19th century to the preoccupations of social justice movements today.
If they succeed where the religious right failed, it will be because post-Protestantism enjoys an intimate relationship with the American establishment rather than representing an insurgency of outsider groups, because centrist failures and Trumpian moral squalor removed rivals from its path, and because its moral message is better suited to what younger Americans already believe.