A conversation with Philip Gorski

book cover imageWe are very pleased to welcome Philip Gorski to discuss his new book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton UP, 2017). Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Yale University. His research and writing focuses on religion and politics in early modern and modern Europe and North America.

Thanks for joining the Bookman for a conversation on your new book, which comes at a critical time in the nation’s history: with issues from immigration to the debates raging over Confederate statues, we are vigorously discussing who we are as a nation. Your book addresses the critical role “civil religion” plays in American life and how that idea has been distorted by factions of various kinds.

Perhaps you can tell us a little about the genesis of this book.

I started writing the book at what seemed like a more hopeful moment in our national history: the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s message of unity had struck a deep chord with many voters, including many Republican voters. And John McCain ran an honorable campaign—publicly defending him against birther slanders. And when it all was over he gave a gracious and moving concession speech. Of course, Sarah Palin also struck a chord with many voters as well, and her moment in the spotlight turned out to be a mere prologue for Donald Trump.

UB: What is a nation’s civil religion, and how would you describe America’s?

PG: A nation’s civil religion—to paraphrase my mentor, Robert Bellah—consists of the stories and rituals, the symbols and “saints” that connects a people to some sense of higher purpose. On my reading of the founding documents, America’s civil religious creed dedicates us to four cardinal values: (1) freedom based on “republican government”; (2) equality of a fundamental kind; (3) the common good or “common welfare”; and (4) social inclusion of a diverse citizenry (“e pluribus unum”).

Balancing those commitments is not easy, of course. They are in considerable tension with each other. Economic freedom can lead to social inequality, for example. The goal of social inclusion can lead to attacks on free speech. Still, ordering and balancing these values in some reasonable way is what we are collectively committed to.

One of the distinctive features of the American version of civil religion is that it draws on both sacred and secular sources. As such, it can potentially speak to people of faith and of no faith, and possibly even bind them together.

UB: What do you see as the vulnerabilities of a common civil religion?

PG: One danger is that it devolves into a culture of national self-worship and collective self-congratulation that turns the nation into a god, and its denizens into heroes. A healthy civil religion recognizes the frailty of any institution that is constructed out of the crooked timber of humanity. Some argue that the Puritans’ emphasis on original sin was a curse. I would argue that it was their greatest gift to posterity. It kept us humble, at least for a while.

Another danger is that it excludes too many. For much of our history, the civil religion had a Protestant and “Anglo-Saxon” cast that left Catholics and Jews in the shadows. That changed in the decades following World War II, when civil religion was recast in “Judeo-Christian” and broadly European terms. The challenge now is to expand the tradition further to accommodate an even more diverse citizenry. This will not be easy. But we have succeeded in broadening the tent in the past, so we have some grounds for hope.

UB: You have a very interesting and helpful discussion about tradition. Some would say America is a nation without tradition, that we are new people without any ties.

PG: Some do indeed say that. But I respectfully disagree. Our nation’s founders had a very strong sense of tradition. Indeed, most understood the American project as an attempt to recover and carry forth two interlinked traditions: civic republicanism and prophetic religion. They believed that the pagan republics of Athens and Rome had ultimately foundered because they lacked a religious foundation for civic virtue. They also believed that the first and hitherto greatest republic was the Hebrew republic established by the ancient Israelites.

The two strands of the tradition began to unravel during the 1970s and 1980s as civic republicanism was increasingly supplanted by procedural liberalism and prophetic religion morphed into end-times quackery. We are now at a point where the entire tradition is under attack by the populist right, who seem eager for a strongman who can end the culture wars in their favor. The very worst of them now argue that the only binding ties between us are “blood and soil.” Nor will this assault end when Donald Trump leaves the White House. On the contrary, it may get even worse unless leaders on the left and the right are able to band together around a shared commitment to republican government. So it is absolutely essential that we recover the civil religious tradition that unites us and reconstitute a vital center that can withstand the centrifugal pulls towards anarchy and authoritarianism.

UB: You argue that no one can think outside of a tradition; indeed that you write that you “doubt that rationality in any deep sense is possible outside of a tradition.” Can you expand on that idea?

PG: Like it or not, we are all born into some set of cultural traditions—national, religious, political, moral, and so on—even if we are only dimly aware of their history. And our thinking is inevitably shaped by these traditions, even if we ultimately reject parts of them. Indeed, to really wrestle with a tradition, you have to get up close and get a firm hold if it. So, no thinking outside of a tradition.

Why do I say that tradition and rationality go together? First, because traditions are ongoing conversation where various positions have been subjected to the test of experience. Second, because tradition connects us to exemplary figures who can provide moral and political models for us. This is important because moral and political decisions often involve balancing various goods and bads in a particular context. Such decisions cannot be subjected to a simple rule such as “utility maximization” or “the categorical imperative.”

UB: The materials of tradition—which you describe as canon, pantheon, narrative, and archive—move into and out of the narrative of who we are. Can use give us an example of how use of those materials altered our civil religion?

Sure. Many discussions of the American creed—including mine—cite John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” speech. This is the source of the call for America to be “as a city upon a hill.” Well, the text of Winthrop’s speech wasn’t discovered until the 1830s. And it didn’t really enter into public discussion until the 1930s. Well, turns out that this speech was not much known before the twentieth century. A few years ago, Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes described it as one of the greatest sermons of the last thousand years! The city upon a hill speech provided an image that helped Americans think about their role in the world.

Let me give a second example. At two points in his political career—in 1854 and 1860—Abraham Lincoln immersed himself in the Founders’ writings as he sought to clarify his views about slavery. Based on his study, he concluded that the Declaration of Independence’s explicit claim that “all men are created equal” overrode the Constitution’s tacit recognition of slaveryin the 3/5th clause. This led to a renarration of American history in which slavery became our “original sin.” While John C. Calhoun and other proslavery ideologues claimed that chattel slavery was the foundation of republican freedom—a freedom limited to white male property holders—Lincoln and other antislavery politicians argued that the United States was intended as a democratic republic founded on free labor.

UB: A lot of our controversies surround questions of memory—part of how we define ourselves as a nation depends on our common memories of who we are and where we have come from; how can our civil religion help us create those common bonds in the face of America’s increasing diversity?

PG: It’s important that we distinguish “memory” from “history.” They have often been confused in the recent discussion about Confederate monuments. Monuments are about memory. They are meant to remind us about certain parts of our history. Removing monuments will not erase that history. It is what it is, as they say.

It’s also important to recognize that memory has a history. Most of the Confederate monuments not erected during or after the Civil War. They were erected in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, during the early decades of Jim Crow. As such, they were monuments to white supremacy more than to “the war between the states.”

Now, I think that an argument can be made for keeping the statues in place, but only as a warning. But that would involve some explicit recognition of their connection to Jim Crow and white supremacy. It’s important to remember the bad with the good. But we have to be clear about which is which. This is where the civil religious tradition comes in. It reminds us of our highest aspirations, but also ofhow often we’ve fallen short of them.

UB: The two more extreme wings of our civil religion you identify as radical secularism and religious nationalism. What are they and why should they be rejected?

PG: I’ve already given a brief description of religious nationalism above: it’s collective self-worship that divinizes the nation. For a long time, it traveled under the polite alias of “American exceptionalism.” Recently, Steve Bannon and other members of the so-called alt-right have advanced a secularized version of it: a white nationalism that purports to defend “Christian civilization.” American religious nationalism has two distinctive features that make it easily recognizable. The first is talk of blood: blood sacrifice, blood conquest, blood purity, and so on. Donald Trump talks a lot about blood. The second is apocalyptic talk about a final showdown between the forces of good and evil. As if the line between good and evil ran between nations and peoples rather than through them. Such talk is idolatrous and hubristic and must be rejected by any serious person of faith.

But it often isn’t. And that is one reason—not the only one, of course—why some people embrace radical secularism. They come to associate religion with exclusivity and bellicosity. That is a complete misconception of the core message of the Christian faith. But it’s not hard to see how some folks would get this impression.

So, what is radical secularism? What are its core tenets? I count three: separationism, scientism, and supersessionism. By separationism, I mean total separationism, the view that religion can and should be kept completely out of politics, as opposed to the quite reasonable and distinctively American idea that there should be an institutional separation of church and state. By scientism, I mean that science is the sole source of truth, and that any truth that cannot be validated by science is no truth at all. And by supersessionism, I mean the idea that modernity continually supersedes tradition and without loss or remainder.

What’s the matter with these ideas? Well, total separationism is at odds with the American tradition of religious freedom and, indeed, with liberal principles of free expression. Scientism ignores the fact that science provides no clear answers to the life questions—what to do and who to be. And supersessionism ignores the paradoxes and ironies of history of which Reinhold Niebuhr so eloquently wrote.

UB: You argue that there is a center between these extremes—a “righteous republic”—that represents the best of our civil religion. What are its characteristics?

Well, I could certainly say a lot about that! But let me just draw two contrasts that speak to our present moment. First, a righteous republic is not based on an ethic of “personal accountability” in which we are judged solely on the basis of our good intentions. It is based on a social ethic in which we think about how our actions bear on our common life. Second, a righteous republic is not based on politics of “individual rights” in which we have no binding obligations to others. The ancients taught—and we would do well to remember—that republican government requires civic virtue. It requires an active citizenry capable of governing its passions and working toward the common good.

UB: Seeing our current debates, what recommendations would you have to revivify a centrist civil religion?

PG: For one thing, spending less time and energy on electoral politics, especially at the national level, and more on concrete problems, especially on the local level. The opioid epidemic, for example. For another, intentionally reaching out across the deep dividing lines in American society. This is essential to restoring social trust. Third, join an organization or a movement and invest in it. This could be a religious community. Or it could be something else. We need to fixcivil society before we can fix our politics.

That’s not to deny that politics is important. But again we would do well to divert time and energy away from the culture wars issues and towards our institutions. Defending voting rights, doing away with partisan gerrymanders, and getting big money out of our politics would be a good start.  

We interview Yale professor Philip Gorski on his recent book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.