In Bottum’s revisionist account, Protestant preacher Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) looms as the figure who most succinctly defined the spiritual mission of 20th-century Mainline Protestantism and its heirs. He put “social sins” at the front of the Mainline imagination. “The six social sins, Rauschenbusch announced, were bigotry, the arrogance of power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, the madness of the mob, militarism, and class contempt,” Bottum writes. These six would fittingly describe an enemies list for liberals today: racists and homophobes, hedge-funders who claim to be victims, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, Dick Cheney and the neocons, and the Koch brothers again.
Not all of Bottum’s post-Protestants are directly descended from Mainline members. Jews, Catholics, and even atheists join this unofficial spiritual-but-not-religious tribe, just as before many Jews, Catholics, and nonbelievers joined Mainline churches as a way to signal their arrival in a new, important social class. For Bottum it isn’t quite right to define these post-Protestants as an elite — many of them are not at all wealthy, and do not have direct social power. Instead, they are an “elect” class, so named because they seem to constitute a churchly class: moralistic, possessed of self-superiority, and drawn from across economic classes, a mingling of poor artists, middlebrow activists, and rich benefactors.
For Bottum, what is remarkable is the way the spiritual experience of Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel” is so like the experience of modern liberalism. According to Rauschenbusch, one opposes these social sins through direct action, legislative amelioration, and simply recognizing their effect and sympathizing with their victims. Rauschenbusch wrote, “An experience of religion through the medium of solidaristic social feeling is an experience of unusually high ethical quality, akin to that of the prophets of the Bible.”
The post-Protestants Bottum identifies have just that, “a social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.”
— Michael Breden Dougherty, “The religious roots of the elite liberal agenda” (HT: Chris Sandoval)