In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama spoke to American voters in Philadelphia about race. The republic, he began, was “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.” But, he concluded, redemption is possible, as long as we “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
Obama didn’t just open and close with biblical language; the entire speech was salted with Scripture. Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale University, was intrigued by this seamless movement from sacred Scripture to secular politics and back again. His intrigue turned into American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.
Gorski’s thesis is simple (although his development of it isn’t). American politics is currently a braid of three strands, one healthy, two noxious. The healthy strand is “civil religion,” a phrase he plucks, with a nod, from the hands of his mentor Robert Bellah: “By civil religion,” Bellah had written in The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial in 1978, “I refer to that religious dimension, found I think in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality.” The two noxious threads that wrap around civil religion, attempting to strangle it, are religious nationalism and radical secularism. American religious nationalism, originating with Cotton Mather and recently embodied in Jerry Falwell, slides off to the right of civil religion; it is, in Gorski’s words, “a toxic blend of apocalyptic religion and imperial zeal that envisions the United States as a righteous nation charged with a divine commission to rid the world of evil and usher in the Second Coming.” Radical secularism, arriving from the left, is an equally destructive mix of “cultural elitism and militant atheism that envisions the United States as part of an Enlightenment project threatened by the ignorant rubes who still cling to traditional religion.” It was fathered by Robert Ingersoll after the Civil War, came of age after World War II, and goes into battle mode when Christian language bobs up in political discourse.
American Covenant is the story of how, from the Puritans until the present day, civil religion has been slowly strangled by its two poisonous partners. But it is more than history. It is an impassioned and erudite plea for the rejection of both religious nationalism and radical secularism, and for the resurrection of civil religion in the life of the republic.
Gorski’s tome has been drawing generally positive, and occasionally glowing, reviews. This praise is deserved. Despite frequent lapses into impenetrable academic prose, the book lays out a clear and compelling case, backed by a detailed historical narrative that supports Gorski’s thesis.
But there’s a problem at the very centre of Gorski’s thesis; a worm in the apple.
At first handshake, “civil religion” is pretty straightforward. It is a combination of “civic republicanism” and “covenantal religion” that blends “civic and religious motifs” into a “founding myth.” To put this into my own words: Gorski begins by saying that civil religion is a shared language that uses biblical and theological coding to place the events, people, and values of America into a shared past.
After this, Gorski amplifies the definition, this time by contrast. We recognize civil religion, in large part, because it is neither religious nationalism nor radical secularism: it is “a via media between these two extremes.”
Then he adds a new dimension to the definition: Civil religion is a story, a “narrative that tells us where we came from and where we are headed.” And this narrative is made up of smaller pieces, other tales that embed “our values and commitments within particular stories of civic greatness—and collective failure.”
Then he defines civil religion again, this time by pulling apart each word in the phrase “civil religion.” It is “religious,” even for secular Americans, in that it “owes a deep debt to the Hebrew prophets” and “supplies the lyric poetry of our public life.” It is “civil,” even for deeply religious people, because the health of the civic community is “an end in itself,” and the “core values” of that community (such as justice for all citizens) trump more specific religious values (such as particular sexual mores).
Then he defines civil religion once more, by contrasting it with Rousseau’s competing ideas. And then, once more again, with a new set of contrasts to religious nationalism and radical secularism. . . .
Defining Civil Religion to Death
I’ll spare you further examples, but the definitions continue. And a slow dissolution begins. Civil religion, that central strand, has pretty clear outlines when we first meet it. But the more distinctly Gorski tries to paint it, the less vivid it grows, until it fades into a grey mist of comparisons, redefinitions, and qualifications.
For example: Gorski quotes Obama approvingly (he’s quite taken with Obama’s rhetoric, if less so with his actual policies): “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” But that religious content is awkward for unbelievers, so Gorski suggests that “the religious strand of the tradition . . . be understood in nonreligious terms.” The exodus becomes “an inspiring story of emancipation and deliverance.” The book of Job, the parables of the Gospels, and the Letter to the Romans can all be given “secular reinterpretations.” We can keep the language as long as we empty it of its supernatural dimension.
In what way is this still “religion”?
“Civil” suffers the same fate, at various times: death by over-definition. By contrast, the definitions of American religious nationalism and radical secularism remain solid, distinct, and crystal clear. In the end, civil religion ends up resembling some kind of weird Star Trek alien, the sort that exists as a vibrating continuum of glowing, changing energy. You can’t actually get your hands on it, but it’s pretty sharply defined by the non-energy boundaries on either side.
As a historical thesis, this isn’t necessarily problematic. There are plenty of slippery historical phenomena that can only be defined by contrast and negation. (Just to pick an obvious one: for most of the American past, “Negro” meant, simply, “not completely white.”)
It becomes a problem because American Covenant isn’t simply a history; it’s a call to action.
We’re in trouble, Gorski concludes. Anyone who’s been on Facebook since the election would be hard pressed to disagree. The republic is fractured. We cannot even shout across the divide; no one is listening.
“The vital center must be rebuilt,” Gorski tells us on the final page of American Covenant. “Our constitutional system cannot function without a vital center. . . . If we fail to rebuild the vital center, it will mean the end not only of American democracy . . . but of the American creed itself: e pluribus unum.”
He refers to the “vital center” six times during this closing exhortation, which puzzled me. I’m generally a careful reader, but I didn’t remember the “vital center” in any of the 250 pages preceding.
I finally found it, back on page 1.
Writing shortly after the close of World War II, Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke of the urgent need to fortify the “vital center” of the American polity against “centrifugal forces” that were threatening to tear it apart. By the “vital center,” he meant an alliance between the “non-Fascist Right” and “the non-Communist Left” that was based on a shared belief in liberal democracy. The “centrifugal forces” he spoke of emanated from rapid social change and radical ideologies.
Today, America’s vital center is threatened by a new set of centrifugal forces.
Two hundred and thirty-one pages later, “vital center”—undefined, but clearly not quite the same as Schlesinger’s version— has reappeared.
Let me connect the “vital center” that opens and closes American Covenant with that central thread of civil religion that is ever-threatened by its two evil shadows:
Whatever the vital centre is, Gorski believes that those who work to build it must speak the language of civil religion to each other. No religious nationalists, radical secularists, fundamentalists, partisan trolls, or demagogues will take part; only those of us “who don’t confuse democracy with empire, who don’t think we have a monopoly on truth or morality, who don’t believe that religion is always a source of oppression, and who don’t think that science has all the answers.
Seeming to realize that this is a series of negations, not affirmations, he quickly adds, “Or, in positive terms, those of us who are committed enough to the dream of the righteous republic to talk and maybe even walk across the deep trenches that were dug during the culture wars.”
If that sounds vague, it is. The most specific Gorski gets about how civil religion will help rebuild the vital centre comes a couple of pages earlier, where he proposes “a few possible antidotes to contemporary corruption.” Central to his strategy: “Make civic holidays into holidays again”: close stores, shut down the marketplace, and provide the country with “space for civic reflection and celebration.” And “make character education a part of civic education,” in order to “instill basic civic virtues such as honesty, courage, and generosity” into schoolchildren.
Neither one of these things can happen without the help of religion. The secular polity has to borrow from religion the importance of ritual: the setting aside of time and space to worship something that transcends both. The secular educator has to borrow from religion the idea that there are qualities that transcend biology—generosity, for example, and self-sacrifice—and that those qualities can be trained into human beings, even though they may run counter to our natural (and baser) impulses.
Civil religion makes this borrowing possible.
More than that: In Gorski’s telling, civil religion, in the form of a Hebrew and Christian tradition that has been pared down into a set of moral precepts acceptable to Americans of all (or no) belief systems, is the best hope we have of finding a code that we can all agree on; our best hope for fixing the broken republic.
And it is our best hope not only because (in Bellah’s phrase) religion “interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality” but also because it is inextricably entwined with our past: the moral and theological stances of the prophets and of the New Testament writers provided the matrix from which the original vision of the American republic sprang, and so is bound up with our attempts to preserve the dream of that righteous republic.
If we can resurrect civil religion, according to Gorski, we will be saved.
The Glory of Giving Up the Head of the Table
I don’t have space here to recap the entire historical argument that lies behind this conclusion. It is thoughtful, sound, and well-documented. And, for both pragmatic and theological reasons, I think it leads Gorski to the wrong conclusion.
Pragmatically, I’m certain that Gorski has seriously underestimated the viability of a religious tradition stripped of the particular, exclusivist, obnoxious-to-outsiders claims that animate it. Another history of American religion and politics could legitimately be written that would trace the decline of civil religion, not to the parasitic stranglehold of competing creeds, but to the slow emptying of civil religion’s supernatural core. (With apologies to my Unitarian readers: Jefferson, in 1823, expressed “little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the Unity of the Creator.” Look around you.)
But even more centrally: as a Christian myself, and so a believer in Jesus’s obnoxious-to-outsiders claim to be God, I’m almost certain that my faith leads me to locate something other than civil religion in that up-for-grabs space between the unacceptable options of religious nationalism and radical secularism.
Christianity may be the language in which the original vision of the American republic was expressed—but it was expressed, in that language, by white Christian founders. In the summer of 2016, Robert P. Jones’s book The End of White Christian America used the metaphor of a dinner table to describe our historical progression away from a republic controlled by (male) white Protestants. In the earlier years of the American experiment, the father’s place at the head of the table—the place of control, from which table manners are enforced, the consumption of one’s dinner is monitored, and the bickering between siblings is halted—was held by white Protestants. And the dialogue instituted to keep civility around the table was the language of white Protestantism.
But, as Jones points out, white Protestants no longer control America’s civic centre; white Protestants are no longer the majority stakeholders in the American experiment. Instead, they must “find their seats at the table alongside Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and the religiously unaffiliated. This time, they will be guests rather than hosts.”
Insisting on the language of civil religion seems to me like a stubborn refusal to give up that seat at the head of the table, to accept our status as valued guests who have a part to play in the conversation but are no longer in charge of it. And for those of us who are Christians (white and non-white alike), giving up this language, and the power that adheres to it, may be the clearest possible way to be Christlike.
Let me offer a parable from the Gospel of Luke that makes sense to me only as a Christian parable, still chock full of its supernatural significance, unsecularized into acceptable civil form.
When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.”
Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 14:8–11 NIV)
I don’t know what will take the place of civil religion: what language will animate the vital centre and allow Trump enthusiasts and liberal Democrats to agree together on the foundational values of the republic. Something has to fill that space between religious nationalism and radical secularism, or else it will indeed collapse inward. We’re in new territory here.
But I also think the prophets and the New Testament writers would agree with me that giving up earthly power (and make no mistake, language is power) is only possible if you believe that earthly power is not the end of existence, that the death of something worldly, whether that earthly thing is influence, recognition, or even life itself, will lead to a supernatural resurrection brought about by a transcendent reality much greater than yourself.