Mainline’s Decline and the Fate of America

Peter Leithart notes the implication for moral discourse in America:

In a characteristically fascinating article in the August/September edition of First Things, Jody Bottum argues that, given the informal Protestant establishment that has existed since America’s founding, “the death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: the Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.” The collapse of Protestant America makes it very difficult for Americans to combine patriotism with profound criticism, with the result that “any attempt to speak in the old-fashioned voice of moral criticism turns sour and bitter – segueing into anti-Americanism, regardless of its intentions.”

Bottum poses, more sharply and profoundly than any one else has, the question of whether America can survive the loss of this “leg” of the three-legged stool of democracy, capitalism, and religion.

I hadn’t considered this element. Kudos again to First Things, which continues to surprise and challenge me with the depth of thinking. The religious conservative is much richer than anyone not participating in it can appreciate.

I’ll have to read more to see if Bottum identifies the difference between Mainline moral language and that of pentacostal and evangelical theologies. Is there a greater separation between earthly rulers and God’s power in charismatic movements? God’s Spirit, according to these new communities, doesn’t flow through institutions, but individual souls. Obedience is to God, or to the State. The complex relationship between the two is severed leaving the category of faithful or patriot dissent entirely absent.

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