Emma Green interviews sociologist Phil Gorski, whose new book argues that Americans need to rediscover the “vital center” in this age of polarization. Gorski says that it’s not true that the Founders were either totally secular or totally devout:
The more accurate story of America is one of “civil religion,” Gorski writes, that cherishes a founding myth and agreed-upon set of civic values and responsibilities. Understanding America’s tradition of civil religion is important for reviving the “vital center,” as he calls it: “believers and nonbelievers, Republicans and Democrats who support a moderate form of secularism and a liberal form of nationalism.” This is “not a mushy middle that splits the difference between left and right,” he says, nor does it “purport to be a ‘third way’ that ‘transcends’ debate.” Rather, the project is about re-learning how to talk to one another and establishing a set of shared principles derived from American history.
From the interview itself:
Emma Green: What is civil religion?
Philip Gorski: Civil religion is the way a particular people thinks about the transcendent purposes of a life together. One might understand “transcendent” in a traditional religious sense, or one might just understand it as some kind of ultimate value or higher purpose that a nation or polity is built around.
American civil religion is a specific version of that.
Green: You propose that many Americans are in a middle space of some sort—not necessarily between conservative and liberal thinking, but between these poles of radical secularism and religious nationalism. You seem to be arguing that the culture wars aren’t representative of what most people think, feel, say, and experience.
Who are these “middle voters,” and how do you know they exist?
Gorksi: I don’t know for sure that they exist. But I do think we have cultural resources in our shared history that have unified us, even in times of deep division like this one. The fundamental purpose of my book is to recover these resources, and to point people toward this place that I call the vital center.
It’s not a place of perfect agreement or complete consensus. But it is a place where at least we’re all arguing about the same values and feeling that we’re a part of the same long, hard, intergenerational project in the American experiment in democracy.
You know I’m a pessimist about this kind of thing, but really, I would love to believe that there were a “vital center” that meant anything. I think it is certainly true that most Americans don’t share the sense of culture war that people on either extreme do. Whether that’s because they’re not paying attention, or they just don’t have the emotional investment in this or that issue, it’s impossible to say. You might not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is definitely interested in you.
I have not read Gorski’s book, let me stipulate, but I am skeptical of his hypothesis of a vast, silent, disengaged minority. First, it doesn’t matter that they’re in the majority if they won’t speak up and act out in defense of their centrist views. Second, “civil religion” is parasitic on real religion. You can have a plausible (from a sociological and political point of view) civil religion only when an actual religion is believed by enough people. That is, folks might not go to church much, but they share a basic Judeo-Christian framework for understanding the world and constructing society, including legislating. But when that fades away, as it has done and continues to do, what binding power can civil religion possibly have?
Increasingly, Christians can’t even agree on what Christianity is, and requires of us — particularly when it comes to public issues. Churches are splitting over gay rights, for example, and immigration is hotly contested. Sixty years ago, say, there would have been much less divergence of belief among churches, and the sense of national unity (achieved in part through the cultural forces of conformity) was much greater. Besides, today the quickest way to get something is to claim special victimhood status as the result of your identity. Whether or not you have a point in your particular claim, this habit has become divisive of the body politic.
It’s like this: if we have a vital center, then where are these centrists at colleges when the left tries to no-platform speakers? Where were the centrists on that day in the quad at
Harvard Yale when Nicholas Christakis was shouted at and abused by the leftist mob? They don’t say or do anything. No civil religion is strong enough to counter the real American religion: worship of the sacred Self.