Joseph Bottum has a memorable joke in his book "An Anxious Age: The Post Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America" that reflects the book's unique genre. Bottum writes: "...in any phrase the word social should be read as meaning basically not. Social scientist, for example, more or less equals not a scientist. "
Bottum's book is not mere social science, even though it might be the best book on the sociology of religion in America since Max Weber and Peter Berger. What Bottum's book is, is a sort of throwback to an age, circa pre-1900, when social science and religion was written about from a value-full perspective. In actual life the two are inseparable, except in modern social science. Bottum pulls off one of the most accurate sociological portraits of the decline of Protestantism in America while commenting as a Christian believer and without sacrificing sociological accuracy.
Bottum's methodology uses qualitative sociology to paint four biographical portraits of members of what Bottum calls members of The New Class that has supplanted the Protestant Business Class in America. The portraits are fictional but apparently a composite of actual people - something the famous German sociologist Max Weber would call an "ideal type."
Bottum's quote of T.S. Eliot is one of the most accurate about the definition of The New Class: "The elites" consist "solely of individuals whose only common bond will be their professional interest; with no social cohesion, with no social continuity."
Although Bottum doesn't put it in these words, The New Class is those who have married their professions in the knowledge industries: academia, media, entertainment, and government. What Bottum's book chronicles in the life of four fictional persons is the decline of the Protestant Work Ethic and the Old Business Class that made up Protestant Christianity. Today, it is the member of the New Professional Knowledge Class that has taken over Protestantism to its demise.
Where nominal Protestantism still exists it mainly does so in service to New Class Elites who have infiltrated and taken over the leadership positions in mainline churches. This takeover has resulted in schisms as conservative Protestants have fled for Evangelical and Catholic churches or declining remnants of older churches.
The surnames Bottum gives his four characters are: Paisley (Scottish), Jones (British), Winslow (Old English), and Doorn (Dutch). By profession they are a psychologist, American history professor, a hippie guitar repairman, and a retired woman activist. By former church affiliation they respectively were Presbyterian, Methodist, Unitarian-Quaker, Dutch Reformed.
Today they all fall into the category of the "Nones." They have no religious affiliation and no connection with the business class, which they despise. If they have a religion it is the social gospel without the Gospel says Bottum. Bottum calls them "The Poster Children": adult children afflicted with a social disease whose portraits are used to advance a cause.
"All that is necessary for self-esteem, for the certainty of individual salvation, is possession of the class markers of social suspicion that indicate one belongs to the fellowship of the redeemed" writes Bottum. The traits of those in the New Class is that they "rent seek" and form fiefdoms, hoard privilege, self-righteously congratulate themselves, need to feel superior, assert relativism in an absolutist way, and they arrogantly despise other classes and strict religion (particularly the Business Class and fundamentalist religion). They are post-modernists who have a romantic view of primitive life. They are assured that science is on their side and confident that morality can be socially engineered by the New Knowledge Class.
The test that he puts to his half fictional-half real characters is a field test: he simply asks them to name something they thought was beautiful. The typical response to this question Bottum writes is relativistic: "different cultures think different things are beautiful," as if they parroted something they learned by rote from a textbook. Very few answer that they found beauty in a classic piece of art, music, or even in nature because nature is despoiled by modern industrialism.
To the New Class there is nothing that is solidly true, good, or beautiful (and by extension nothing evil except other classes).
Bottom also calls them "tourists without homes," reminiscent of sociologist Peter Berger's term "Homeless Minds." Borrowing from pragmatic philosopher William James, Bottum says the members of the New Class live in the metaphorical corridors of their homes and have never entered any of the rooms to make a home. Because they have no spiritual home they have high spiritual and social anxiety that becomes instantly defensive and outraged, intuitively feeling that is only their self-assertion, collective political power, and feeling of being right that makes them right. Again, although Bottum does not use this term they are infused with "cognitive dissonance" where the moment they are exposed or confronted to contrary evidence or views, their own views get stronger in defense. Because of this there is no way to dialogue with those in the New Class, a conclusion that Bottum does not make however.
The second half of the book is about how Catholicism is the only vestige of Christianity left and what it's role might be in a Post Protestant culture where what is left of mainline Protestant Churches has been appropriated as modern temples for the New Class. This is a great book but I doubt it will be read by many in the un-self critical and self righteous New Class which he describes. The victors of culture wars will write their interpretation of history but this book is a self-critical examination of the history of the decline of Protestantism and rise of the New Class written by one of their own members. Bottum is a poet, memoirist, philosopher, American and classical historian with a sociologist's understanding who nonetheless is a religious believer.
However, Bottum is not a social scientist by training. If he were a social scientist he may have written a somewhat different book than a sequel to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Instead, he might have relied on another of Weber's classic books to help understand why the New Class has ascended to supplant and appropriate Protestant Christianity for itself: Weber's book on Bureaucracy.