An Anxious Age, by Joseph Bottum

According to Joseph Bottum, “the single most significant fact over the past few decades in America—the great explanatory event from which follows nearly everything in our social and political history—is the crumbling of the Mainline [Protestant] churches as central institutions in our national experience.”

Bottum, a practicing Catholic who has written widely and has worked on the staffs of both the Weekly Standard and First Things, contends that the failure of mainline churches, as shown by both their steadily declining membership and their lack of cultural influence, has created a moral vacuum in American life that the coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelicals has not been able to fill.

Drawing on the metaphor of a three-legged stool, Bottum argues that the exceptionalism of American society has rested on democracy, capitalism, and religion. Each of these legs has provided both support for and pressure on the others, making possible a society of relative stability. Bottum begins with George Washington’s assertion that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,” and argues that the dominant Protestant churches of the early republic commanded the implicit allegiance of a majority of Americans and provided the moral template for the nation. Now, he says, that template has crumbled.