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Church Social

A personal view of faith turned inside out.

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Colleen McDannell holds the Sterling M. McMurrin Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Utah, which is not inappropriate. McMurrin was an interesting man: a national scholar who was also something of a power in the Mormon Church back in the 1960s and ’70s. Those were the days when everybody already knew that the Latter-day Saints would have to make some moves toward joining—politically, socially, and theologically—the rest of Christianity in America. And the question was whether the Christian churches toward which the Mormons moved would be from the liberal Protestant mainline or the emerging conservative evangelicals.

McMurrin plumped for the liberal mainline, and he lost. Badly. But his spirit seems alive in McDannell, whose ameliorative picture of Catholicism today is designed mostly to maintain the liberalism of the laity that she fears is disappearing. Or, at least, a kind of old-fashioned, mainline-consensus liberalism. Social history is her specialty. Heaven: A History, the 1988 book she cowrote with Bernhard Lang, is a nice walk through the world to come, as pictured in various ages, and with the 1996 Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America she managed the difficult task of mocking Christian kitsch without insulting the beliefs of its creators and purchasers.

Through it all, McDannell has worked from a picture of faith as a reasonable and proper thing for people to have—provided, of course, that they don’t carry things too far. That can look quite conservative, in a world with the New Atheists running around declaring religious upbringing a species of child abuse. But it is, at root, a dated and nostalgic thing, uninformative about the times in which we actually live. In The Spirit of Vatican II, McDannell finds herself pleasantly surprised at the survival of Catholicism through everything from the first excitement about the council in 1962 to the latest round of outrage about the priest scandals. But she can’t account for that survival, mostly because she has no idea of what to make of John Paul II’s changing of what, McDannell sees, was the trajectory of Catholicism as it emerged from the 1960s.

And of course, to tell her social history of the ups and downs caused by the Second Vatican Council, McDannell uses up her mother’s life. Yes, The Spirit of Vatican II isn’t brutal and defamatory, the way far too many memoirs about parents have been over the last 20 years. But even the sweetest, most ostensibly respectful accounts pall a little when coupled with the self-superior view that, after all, we can’t really blame our parents for making the mistake of living in those strange, benighted days that are the past.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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