Friday, May 31, 2019

Sohrab Amari, "Against David French-ism"

Against David-Frenchism, by Sohrab Amari. First Things 05/29/19:
In March, First Things published a manifesto of sorts signed by several mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, who argued that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.”

Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?

I don’t claim to speak for the other signatories. But as one of the principal drafters, I have given the question a great deal of thought, both before and since the document’s publication. And I can now say that for me, “Against the Dead Consensus” drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.

Further Discussion

Friday, September 21, 2018

Thomas G. West: "The Political Theory of the American Founding"

The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom
by Thomas G. West
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (April 3, 2017). 428 pp.

This book provides a complete overview of the American Founders' political theory, covering natural rights, natural law, state of nature, social compact, consent, and the policy implications of these ideas. The book is intended as a response to the current scholarly consensus, which holds that the Founders' political thought is best understood as an amalgam of liberalism, republicanism, and perhaps other traditions. West argues that, on the contrary, the foundational documents overwhelmingly point to natural rights as the lens through which all politics is understood. The book explores in depth how the Founders' supposedly republican policies on citizen character formation do not contradict but instead complement their liberal policies on property and economics. Additionally, the book shows how the Founders' embraced other traditions in their politics, such as common law and Protestantism.

Reviews and Discussion

  • Founding philosophy, by Michael Anton. [Review]. The New Criterion June 2018:
    West sets for himself the seemingly modest task of “explaining” the American founders’ political views—first, their political theory per se, and second, how they applied that theory to the practical task of building a new government. The qualifier is necessary because while we think we understand the founding, West shows that we—especially, all too often, those who’ve been specifically trained to explain it to others—do not.
  • A Partial Vindication of Thomas West, by James Stoner. Law and Liberty 12/11/17.
  • The Founders in Full, by Vincent Phillip Munoz. Claremont Review of Books 10/19/17:
    By reintroducing the moral underpinnings of the founders’ natural rights republic, Thomas West has made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of American political thought. He shows that the founders’ republicanism is a part of their liberalism; that duties and rights, properly understood, are not at odds. In doing so, The Political Theory of the American Founding not only helps us better understand America’s principles, it explains why we ought to cherish them and fight to restore them to their rightful place in our political life.
  • Roundtable on The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom by Thomas G. West. Hillsdale College. 09/19/17. [Video]
  • Making Sense of the Founders: Politics, Natural Rights, and the Laws of Nature by Justin Dyer. Public Discourse> 06/09/17.
    [West argues] that the founders did in fact share a “theoretically coherent understanding” of politics rooted in natural rights philosophy. Other traditions were of course present, but the founders, West insists, embraced these other traditions in their official public documents and pronouncements only to the extent that those traditions could be enlisted as allies of the natural rights philosophy. When natural rights conflicted with elements of the common law, customary practices, or religious tradition, it was the natural rights tradition that won the day. Public documents and the affairs of state—rather than sermons, commentaries, private letters, or other musings—“point to natural rights and the laws of nature as the lens through which politics is understood.”[...]

    The Political Theory of the American Founding does a wonderful job of correcting some of the caricatures of the political thought of eighteenth-century Americans as amoral, areligious, individualistic, or otherwise hostile to public virtue and the moral conditions of freedom. The key, for West, is recognizing that the founders distinguished the purpose of politics (securing rights) from the purpose of life (happiness), and the founders created a society that remained open to the private pursuit of nobility, wisdom, piety, and the higher goods that were supposedly sublimated by the founders into the base pursuit of material gain.

    Throughout, West leaves open the question whether the founders’ philosophy is true. I venture a preliminary answer: yes, for the most part, but only because they were buoyed by those other traditions—notably Christianity, the common law, and elements of classical theological natural law—and thereby built better than they knew.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Debating Integralism

  • In Defence of Catholic Integralism, by Thomas Pink. The Public Discourse 08/12/18. "States that do not recognize both natural law and the transformation of law and public reason brought about by the raising of religion to a supernatural good will become confessors of false belief opposed to Christianity, and their great power will turn from supporting Christianity to opposing or even repressing it, especially in relation to its moral teaching."
  • Integralism and Catholic Doctrine, by Robert T. Miller. The Public Discourse 07/15/18. Catholics today are not required to believe in a Catholic confessional state. If anything, they are required to believe that everyone has a right under the natural law to religious freedom, that the state has no authority in religious matters, and that coercion of religious activity by the state is morally wrong. In short, integralism is contrary to Catholic doctrine.
  • Can States "Confess" Religious Belief? Should They?, by Christopher O. Tollefsen. 06/05/18. The confessing state exceeds the limits of its authority, either by acting to no good effect, or by acting contrary to good effect. Thus, the confessing state seems inappropriate as a matter not simply of prudence, but of principle.
  • The Catholic Church, the State, and Liberalism, by Joseph G. Trabbic. The Public Discourse 05/02/18. "According to previous papal teaching, a Catholic confessional state is the ideal, even if in most modern situations it’s not a practical possibility, and prudence would steer us away from it. That teaching continues to be normative for Catholics."

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Patrick J. Deneen: "Why Liberalism Failed"

by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press (January 2018).
Of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution. As Patrick Deneen argues in this provocative book, liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history. Here, Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure.

Reviews and Related Articles

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents" by Patrick J. Deneen

Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents (Dissident American Thought Today)
by Patrick J. Deneen.

St. Augustines Press; 1 edition (November 30, 2016)
"Opinions about America have taken a decisive turn in the early part of the 21st century. Some 70% of Americans believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction, and half the country thinks that its best days are behind it. Most believe that their children will be less prosperous and have fewer opportunities than previous generations. Evident to all is that the political system is broken and social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap between wealthy haves and left-behind have-nots increases, a hostile divide widens between faithful and secular, and deep disagreement persists over America's role in the world. Wealthy Americans continue to build gated enclaves in and around select cities where they congregate, while growing numbers of Christians compare our times to those of the late Roman empire, and ponder a fundamental withdrawal from wider American society into updated forms of Benedictine monastic communities. The signs of the times suggest that much is wrong with America. This collection of thematic essays by Notre Dame political theorist and public intellectual Patrick Deneen addresses the questions, is there something worth conserving in America, and if so, is America capable of conservation? Can a nation founded in a revolutionary moment that led to the founding of the first liberal nation be thought capable of sustaining and passing on virtues and practices that ennoble? Or is America inherently a nation that idolizes the new over the old, license over ordered liberty, and hedonism over self-rule? Can America conserve what is worth keeping for it to remain--or even become--a Republic?"

Extended Debate: Robert R. Reilly and Patrick Deneen

* * *

Reviews and Related Discussions

Monday, August 21, 2017

Mark Lilla's "The Once and Future Liberal"

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

by Mark Lilla.

Harper (August 15, 2017). 160 pages.
In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla offers an impassioned, tough-minded, and stinging look at the failure of American liberalism over the past two generations. Although there have been Democrats in the White House, and some notable policy achievements, for nearly 40 years the vision that Ronald Reagan offered—small government, lower taxes, and self-reliant individualism—has remained the country’s dominant political ideology. And the Democratic Party has offered no convincing competing vision in response.

Instead, as Lilla argues, American liberalism fell under the spell of identity politics, with disastrous consequences. Driven originally by a sincere desire to protect the most vulnerable Americans, the left has now unwittingly balkanized the electorate, encouraged self-absorption rather than solidarity, and invested its energies in social movements rather than in party politics.

With dire consequences. Lilla goes on to show how the left’s identity-focused individualism insidiously conspired with the amoral economic individualism of the Reaganite right to shape an electorate with little sense of a shared future and near-contempt for the idea of the common good. In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated.

Now they have an opportunity to reset. The left is motivated, and the Republican Party, led by an unpredictable demagogue, is in ideological disarray. To seize this opportunity, Lilla insists, liberals must concentrate their efforts on recapturing our institutions by winning elections. The time for hectoring is over. It is time to reach out and start persuading people from every walk of life and in every region of the country that liberals will stand up for them. We must appeal to – but also help to rebuild – a sense of common feeling among Americans, and a sense of duty to each other.

A fiercely-argued, no-nonsense book, enlivened by Lilla’s acerbic wit and erudition, The Once and Future Liberal is essential reading for our momentous times.

Reviews and Discussion

Friday, February 17, 2017

Michael Novak 1933-2017, Requiescat in pace

From his daughter, Jana Novak:

As many of you may have heard by now, dad aka Michael Novak, died peacefully early this morning from complications from colon cancer, at his apartment in DC surrounded by family.

Before he died ... Michael Novak was heard to say, repeatedly, to everyone who came to say goodbye, "God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters." - Robert Royal

Reflections on Novak’s passing

[This post will be continually updated in the weeks to come]

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Critical Reviews of Matthew Stewart's "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

In America's Founding May Not Have Been Christian, but It Sure Wasn't Anti-Christian, Robert Tracy McKenzie, chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, reviews Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. (Christianity Today 07/03/14):
... I'll leave it to the philosophers to evaluate whether Stewart has exaggerated the underlying atheism of this cast of characters. (His portrayal of Locke, at least, is sure to arouse controversy.) As a historian, I am more concerned by his utter failure to establish the influence of atheistic belief on America's founding. Historians believe that our most important task is to explain what we see, basing our statements of cause and effect on evidence. Stewart takes a different approach. He concludes that radical philosophy was widespread among common Americans after discovering it in the writings of two individuals, Vermont's backwoods leader Ethan Allen and a Boston physician named Thomas Young. In like manner, he finds that atheistic presuppositions determined the political philosophy of the most prominent Founders by ruthlessly disregarding all competing influences. This is pronouncement, not demonstration.
McKenzie comments further, on his own blog, Faith and American History:
Although Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots. In short, the emperor has no clothes.

Matthew Stewart, a self-identified atheist, professed in an interview with the Boston Globe that he'd "like the United States to become what it was always meant to be, which is a secular nation — more publicly committed to reason, to improving understanding, and promoting education", sans traditional orthodox religiosity of any kind. Curiously, notes McKenzie,
for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account.
Elsewhere, Baron Swaim (Wall Street Journal) deems that "Mr. Stewart's learning in philosophical radicalism is impressive; what undermines his work is his contempt for everyone but the few radicals he esteems." And Charles W. Cooke (National Review) corrects Stewart's mistaken charge that "the first Tea-Partier was an atheist."

* * *


Mark David Hall has published a rather devastating review of Nature's God for the Spring 2015 issue (pp. 285-291) Christian Scholars Review entitled "A Failed Attempt at Partisan Scholarship", which is reposted to the blog American Creation. He concludes:

... Stewart regularly makes sweeping statements that leave the impression America’s founders were radical deists who wanted to create a godless republic, but he occasionally offers the qualification that many Americans were traditional Christians and that intellectual traditions not antithetically opposed to Christianity may have had some influence as well (e.g. 32, 352). But these qualifications are too few, faint, and far between. By focusing on a handful of founders with radical religious views, some important—Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine—and others relatively unimportant—Allen and Young—he grossly distorts the founders’ religious views and political commitments. Even brief consideration of a wider range of founders reveals a very different picture.*


Nature’s God suffers from a number of serious flaws. Stewart virtually ignores the vast literature on the role of religion in the American founding and he utterly fails to engage scholars whose works challenge his thesis. He misuses and misconstrues primary sources and largely ignores founders (key and otherwise) who do not fit his thesis. Alan Ryan, in a friendly blurb, describes the book as “partisan scholarship.” It seems to me that Ryan is half right. Readers interested in a polemical account of religion in the American founding almost completely ungrounded in history may enjoy this book, but anyone interested in a serious treatment of religion in the era should look elsewhere.

See, for instance, the approximately thirty-three founders and traditions profiled in Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, and Dreisbach and Hall, eds, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (Oxford, 2014).
(Read the whole thing).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'First Things' vs. 'Communio', "Murrayites" and "MacIntyrians"; The Paradox of the "Catholic Libertarian" and Another Kind of Illiberal Catholicism -- A roundup of relevant reading in 2014

  • A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching, by Patrick J. Deneen. American Conservative 02/06/14, on the ongoing debate between the school of John Courtney Murray (as expounded by First Things' George Weigel, Michael Novak and the late Richard J. Neuhaus) and the "Communio" school of Alasdair Macintyre, David Schindler, William T. Cavanaugh, and John Medaille.

  • Opus Publicum on The Other Illiberal Catholicism. 07/04/14:
    Deneen’s portrait of illiberal Catholicism is helpful, but incomplete. Though hardly uniform in thought and orientation, the illiberal (or “radical”) Catholics Deneen mentions tend to take their bearings from the post-Second Vatican Council theology that developed in the pages of Communio and, to a more limited extent, the re-castings of St. Thomas Aquinas that occurred in various pockets of the Catholic intellectual world over the course of the 20th Century. For several reasons, these Catholic thinkers share some affinities with non-Catholics who are skeptical of liberalism, such as the Oxbridge “Radical Orthodoxy” school, though the former maintain a tighter hold on the Catholic Church’s magisterium. But beyond those mentioned by Deneen in The American Conservative is a brigade of illiberal Catholics with roots that run far deeper than intellectual trends which began to form during the latter half of the last century. These illiberal Catholics take their first bearings from the great socio-ecclesial encyclicals of the 19th and early 20th Centuries: Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos; Blessed Pius IX’s Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum; Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei and Rerum Novarum; St. Pius X’s Quanta Cura and E Supremi Apostolatus; and Pius XI’s Quas Primas and Quadragesimo Anno. Rather than looking toward (post)modern academic currents for additional intellectual ammunition, these illiberal Catholics seek grounding in the timeless wisdom of the Angelic Doctor and the tradition which emerged from his teachings.

  • Integralism - a wide-ranging essay initially responding to Zmirak's charges of "illiberal Catholicism", but touching as well on on David Schindler's Critique of Liberalism; the question of religious liberty; the natura pura debate (contra Henri de Lubac); "On the Difference Between Just Being and Being Good: Why Rights Are Not the First Principles of Political Life"; and the "Integralist thesis."

  • [An] Illiberal Catholic Manifesto - being a sermon elivered by Dom Gérard, Abbot of Le Barroux, In Chartres Cathedral, Pentecost, 1985.

  • Mark DeForrest (The Imaginative Conservative) asks: Can Catholicism and Libertarianism Co-Exist? (07/06/14) and concludes:
    There is space within Catholicism to take libertarian arguments seriously, not to agree with them in every instance, but to look at them as a helpful perspective and corrective approach to understanding the dangers of government overreach at the expense of individual initiative and responsibility. By so doing, thinkers who work within the framework of Catholic social teaching can both better understand the libertarian critique of government power as well as aspects of Catholic social thought that have been eclipsed in recent decades. Just as Catholicism had nothing to fear from Aristotle or the Greek philosophers, it has nothing to fear from Friedrich Hayek and other libertarian thinkers and from the true if incomplete insights that they bring to questions involving the use of government power.
    However, Opus Publicum explains why Catholic libertarianism still gets it wrong ("their instincts are usually in the right place, but that’s no excuse for the conscious discharge of authentically Catholic social principles").

  • Michael Novak on On Being and Staying Catholic in the Modern World, an address delivered June 7, 2014 to the graduating class of St. Michael the Archangel High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

  • George Weigel pens a tribute to his friend in "American and Catholic": Michael Novak's achievement City Journal Winter 2014.

  • A City Upon a Hill: Augustine, John Winthrop and the Soul of the American Experiment Today, by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. Address at the St. Anselm Institute, University of Virginia in Charlottesville on February 18, 2014:
    MacIntyre is not exactly a sunny source of hope when it comes to liberal democracy. And I don’t think we should give up – at least not yet – on the possibilities for good that still reside in our system of public life. ...

  • Neoconservatism and Conceptual Clarity Opus Publicum 07/28/14:
    Last week Artur Rosman published a very informative interview with Patrick Deneen at Ethika Politika entitled “The Neo-Conservative Imagination.” In it, Deneen discusses, among other things, the disconnect that exists within what he calls “neoconservative Catholics,” specifically their orthodox view on sexuality morality and their heterodox view on Catholic Social Teaching (CST). While I have no disagreement with him that there is a disconnect, I think the interview — and a lot of critical writing on what I will broadly call economic liberalism within Catholicism — could have taken more care to be conceptually clear. Let me see if I can sort it out. ...

  • Acton and Lee: A Conversation on Liberty, by Stephen Klugewicz and Veronica Mueller
    The Imaginative Conservative (08/02/14):
    It is interesting to note that Lord Acton corresponded with General Robert E. Lee after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Sympathetic to the Confederate cause, Lord Acton considered America’s Constitution as imperfect and “saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will.” In his letter of November 4, 1866, Lord Acton told General Lee that “secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy,” and expressed his belief that General Lee had been “fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization.”

  • Recovering the Catholic Doctrine of Private Property, Part I: On Property Rights, Subjective and Objective, Human and Natural; Part II: A Critical Examination of Catholic Social Teaching on the Question of Private Property, by W. Bradford Littlejohn. Calvinist International 08/13/14.

  • Ghosts of Colson & Neuhaus, by Rod Dreher. The American Conservative 10/01/14:
    I spent all day yesterday with a good group at the office of First Things magazine in New York City. It was a seminar put together by editor Rusty Reno to discuss the future of religion in the public square in what everybody agrees is a meaningfully different era from the one in which the ministries of the late Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson rose to prominence. It was hard to be in that room today and not feel the presence of those two men, if only because their passing came at the end of a hopeful era for socially conservative Christians. ...

  • Thomas Storck on the question: What Authority Does Catholic Social Teaching Have? Ethika Politika. 09/29/14.

  • George Weigel: (HT: Truths Still Held? John Courtney Murray’s “American Proposition,” Fifty Years Later (Thank you: Rick Garnett, Mirror of Justice). 10/13/14.

  • Conservatives, America, and Natural Law, by Samuel Gregg. Public Discourse 10/22/14. On the debate between the "Murrayites" and the "MacIntyrians"; What's wrong with "The Benedict Option", and Natural Law and the American Founding:
    For conservatives, a retreat into self-imposed isolation isn’t a responsible option. We need more conservatives publicly witnessing that humans are wired to know and freely choose truth, and that this has implications for the political order.

  • Revisiting Pope Leo XIII and Reclaiming Catholic Social Doctrine, by Gregory J. Sullivan. Catholic World Report 12/01/14. A review of Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, by Anthony Esolen. (Sophia Institute Press, Oct. 2014).

  • What’s Really at Stake in the Catholic Showdown?, by Thomas Storck. Ethika Politika 12/04/14:
    What exactly is that controversy? In a nutshell, it is over whether the liberal capitalist socio-political order is really compatible with a Catholic view of the state, of society, and even of the human person; whether the condemnations of liberalism made by so many popes and Catholic writers are suddenly out-of-date, passé, made obsolete by the triumph of the new world order represented by the Lockean polity that was fully realized in the United States; and whether, in fact, Catholics can perceive that just as communism posed a deadly threat to a Christian social order and to the very life of the Church, so the bourgeois liberalism of the capitalist world represents a threat of another sort, but in the end one that is just as dangerous.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Joseph Bottum's "An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America"

An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum. Image Books (February 11, 2014)

We live in a profoundly spiritual age--but in a very strange way, different from every other moment of our history. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand on the side of morality--to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

Or so Joseph Bottum argues in An Anxious Age, an account of modern America as a morality tale, formed by its spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.

Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber's sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies in contemporary social class, adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave it meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls "The Poster Children," Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old Mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors' Christianity. Turning to "The Swallows of Capistrano," the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories--and later defeats--of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in public life.

Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

Interviews and Presentations

Reviews and Discussion

  • The Puritans Among Us, by Mary Eberstadt. National Review 04/21/14:
    An Anxious Age abounds in logic and clarification (and for that reason among others, it was derelict of the book’s publisher to omit footnotes and an index, both of which would have helped to signal its scholarly nature). Even so, it is the book’s metaphors that will haunt the reader after he puts it down. Who else would describe Protestantism in the United States as “our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape”? Likely no one — but the image brings to vivid and unexpected life a thousand Pew Research reports on declining attendance and the rise in “nones.” Similarly, the author’s unspooling of the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano as a metaphor for explaining what has happened to Catholicism in America is not only arresting but convincing, succeeding both as religious sociology and as literary trope.
  • Book Review: An Anxious Age by Geraldo Russo. Washington Times 04/01/14. "As Tocqueville and others have recognized, American religion and American exceptionalism have proceeded together. Now that they have been sundered, other choices present themselves. “An Anxious Age” explains how we can make the best of what confronts us."

  • The Rise of Secular Religion, by David P. Goldman. The American Interest 03/17/14:
    This is a work of deep pessimism, albeit mitigated by faith in divine intervention, and its author reveals his innermost thoughts only in parable. It is a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike. It is to be hoped that its dark tone will not discourage those who are more likely to seek encouragement than instruction.
  • An Anxious Author, by Greg Forster. The Public Discourse 03/31/14:
    Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age is a bad book with a good book trapped inside it, struggling to get out. Bottum offers insightful observations that challenge prevailing assumptions about the nature and history of secular progressivism in America. Unfortunately, his main arguments are underdeveloped and disorganized, and the book’s appeal is limited by its prejudice against Protestantism. But the greatest disappointment is Bottum’s failure to practice the Christian virtue of hope.
    • American Hope: Don’t Conflate Political Culture and Christianity, by Joseph Bottum. [Reply to Greg Forster] The Public Discourse 04/10/14. "... a forced smile and a Mrs. Rogers optimism about Americanist politics: I just don’t feel enough anxiety to fake it. A calm hope in Christ Jesus and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin seems enough to be going on with."

  • Rise of the Poster Children, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The University Bookman Spring 2014:
    An Anxious Age incorporates a number of separately published articles and essays, and sometimes the seams are visible. The reader most likely will not mind the digressions and set pieces that don’t relate to the overall argument, however, since the writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters, and his conclusion that the Pope was “the freest man in the twentieth century” is both satisfying and earned. His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey, and effectively underscores Bottum’s argument that today’s Catholic intellectuals are at a disadvantage without the culture that could be taken for granted in the past. The book’s detours into figures such as Rauschenbusch, Max Weber, James Pike, and Avery Dulles are also fascinating.
  • An Anxious Age—and an Antagonistic Future?, by Christopher White. Catholic World Report April 13, 2014:
    Bottum’s work is primarily descriptive in nature and does not offer any hard predictions for what the future might hold from here. There is indeed the possibility that we might hope to begin toreintegrate the public square with a religious language where the poster children of post-Protestant America are convinced by the Catholic converts—or are at least hospitable to their convictions. But that remains unresolved. Considering the widespread skepticism and even hostility in which religious expression is viewed in America, it’s seemingly unlikely. And if this, indeed, the future that awaits us, it’s highly probably that this anxious age in which we live will give rise to an antagonistic one to follow.
  • The End of Exceptionalism, by Eric Jackson. Thoughts and Ideas 3/28/14:
    As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap. America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so. Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.
  • The Social Gospel Paradox Divest This:
    for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough. Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins ["bigotry, arrogance of power, corruption of justice for personal gain, mob madness and violence, militarism and class contempt"]. In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

    Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ. And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

    An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm. For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

  • Reviewed by Matt McCullough 9Marks 3/25/14:
    Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.

    Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway.

  • A conservative who was right about Occupy, by Nathan Schneider. 02/15/14:
    That a critic like Bottum, most at home in conservative quarters, credits Occupy for inspiring his book is to me a reminder of why the movement caught hold of me and so many others so fiercely at the outset: it had the potential to recenter our politics and our discourse and our spectrum. Its failures were less failures of aspiration than of accomplishment — that it wasn’t diverse enough, or empowering enough, or transformative enough to live up to its own transcendental ambitions.