Ross Douthat: The religious roots of a new progressive era

(Byron Rollins | AP file photo) In this Aug. 21, 1959, photo, President Dwight Eisenhower helps unfurl the new 50-star flag in Washington after signing a proclamation making Hawaii the 50th state of the union. At right is Daniel K. Inouye, Democratic congressman-elect from Hawaii.

“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.”

I’ve always appreciated that line, even though it’s usually quoted somewhat unfairly: If you read the rest of the speech, it’s clear Eisenhower was trying to make an ecumenical point about how multiple faiths might sustain the doctrine of human equality, not an indifferentist point about the irrelevance of theology to faith.

Still, taken on its own it’s like a koan of the American civic religion, the faith in faith that reached a zenith under the Eisenhower presidency: In God We Trust, and don’t sweat the theological details.

We’ve been having a lively debate lately about what the sudden social-justice ascendancy in American institutions represents, and whether the new iconoclastic progressivism is just an organic development in liberalism or a post-liberal successor. But Ike’s koan suggests a different way to think about these arguments: Instead of seeing today’s perturbations as being mostly about what might come after liberalism, you could see them as a struggle over what religious worldview should inhabit it, and whether Eisenhower was right that lots of different faiths could fill the void.

By “inhabit” I mean play the role that for most of our history was played by mainline Protestantism — the whole collage of respectable denominations, Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Baptists, their churches sharing town greens and their ministers hobnobbing, divided by mild class distinctions as much as by theological debates, competing amiably for congregants, eyeing Catholics and Jews and Mormons uneasily and looking down on fundamentalists, preaching liberty and middle-class morality and assimilation, secure in their Christianity and their Americanism.

This sketch is all cliché, but the clichés reflect an important, underremembered reality: For most of our history, American liberal democracy was a Protestant project, its principles undergirded by Protestant theological assumptions and its norms shaped and reshaped by currents in the mainline churches.

To push a metaphor for a moment — 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.

But 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. Its more sophisticated leaders were very conscious about their ambitions: They imagined themselves to be forging, through revival and alliance and conversion, a new religious center while the old mainline drifted left. And they were successful enough to inspire periodic panics among their adversaries, dark warnings of an incipient theocracy.

In the end, though, they failed: Because they didn’t win enough converts or allies in the elite, because they didn’t hold enough of their own younger generation, because the legacy of racism divided them from African American and Hispanic churches, because their opposition to the sexual revolution placed them too far from the political center, because the Bush presidency ended in disaster. And in the aftermath of that failure, it appeared that American religion would be defined by fragmentation and polarization, by potent heresies and weakened orthodoxies, with the only meaningful spiritual center occupied by pop gurus like Oprah and Joel Osteen.

Or at least it appeared that way to me; in 2012 I wrote an entire book on the subject. And my analysis applies pretty well to conservatism in the age of Trump, where prosperity theology and religious nationalism have gained at Christian orthodoxy’s expense, the official religious right is a client of a heathen president, and the evangelical-Catholic alliance is rived into countless warring cliques.

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.

This point was plausible but somewhat abstract when the book came out in 2014. But the palpable spiritual dimension of so much social justice activism, before and especially after the George Floyd killing — the rhetoric of conversion and confession and self-scrutiny, the iconoclasm and occasional anti-Catholicism, the idealization of communities of virtue and the accusatory frenzy of online witch hunts — has made that religious lineage impossible to ignore.

Second, Bottum stresses that it’s more useful to think of the post-Protestants — the “poster children,” he sometimes calls them — as an elect rather than an elite, defined more by their education and their moral sensibility than by their overt wealth or power. They are not identical to the managerial elite discerned by other theorists of late-modern class hierarchy; instead, they stand adjacent and somewhat underneath, as adjuncts, consultants, bureaucrats and activists — advisers and petitioners and critics rather than formal leaders, with more economic precarity and moral zeal than those they criticize or serve.

This point, too, is particularly useful to understanding the new power struggle within the liberal upper class. In theological terms, we’re watching the post-Protestant elect wrestle power away from the more secular elite, which long paid lip service to the creed of social justice but never really evinced true faith.

And that power, once claimed, could be used the way the old mainline used its power: not to replace liberal political forms but to infuse them with a specific set of moral commitments and to establish the terms on which important cultural debates are held and settled. Who should have sex with whom, and under what conditions and constraints? Which religious ideas should be favored, and which dismissed with prejudice? What conceptions of the country’s past should be promoted? Which visions of the good life taught in schools? What titles or pronouns should respectable people use? Just as the old denominations once answered these questions for Americans, their post-Protestant heirs aspire to answer them 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.

If they fail, it will probably be because of three weaknesses: the absence of a convincing metaphysics to ground post-Protestantism’s zealous moralism; the difficulty of drawing coherence out of its multiplicity of causes; and the absence of institutional embodiments that make for deep loyalty and intergenerational transmission.

My guess right now is that these problems will be fatal in the long run — that post-Protestantism will burn brighter than the religious right as a moralistic flame within the liberal order, but then pretty rapidly burn out. But whether that guess is right, or whether the last 50 years were just an interregnum between two very different forms of Protestant establishment — well, as to that, God knows.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.