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The Truth About America’s Civil Religion

Radical secularism, religious nationalism, and threats to the vital center.

American Covenant. A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the PresentPhilip Gorski. Princeton University Press. 320 pp.

The recent retirement of Derek Jeter’s Yankees jersey number had all the marks of a civic ceremony. Old legends and dignitaries were paraded on the field, a plaque presented, and highlight reels played. It was a ritual in every way perhaps but name. Indeed, baseball is one of the nation’s most lasting and popularly observed elements of our civil religion. The national anthem, “God Bless America” in the seventh inning, the salute to veterans: each of them is an element in the contemporary American understanding of itself. It is no wonder, then, that baseball has been a frequent subject of conservative commentators as an expression of the national mind. Even Jeter’s personal selection of the day for the ceremony—Mother’s Day—is an illustration of how public events are commemorated or valued. Religious and even civic holidays fade into the background; others rise to take their place.

To baseball, we can add other elements of the American civil religion: heroes and villains, national memories and documents, military victories and defeats. Debates over subjects from the presence of Confederate monuments on public spaces to immigration are just different expressions of an ongoing conversation about who we are. What gets complicated, and contentious, is when the civil religion changes. Philip Gorski, in his striking new book on American civil religion, does not mention baseball or other popular expressions of our civil religions, of which more later. Rather, Gorski explores the key thinkers who shaped the different strands of our civil religion. Even better, especially coming from the progressive academy, the book opens with a strong defense of tradition.

Tradition is the intellectual world we live in; although we can examine our tradition critically, we cannot look from “outside” our tradition. And it is certainly not opposed to “reason;” indeed, tradition is in some ways a prerequisite to rational discussion. Moreover, tradition is not fixed, but can be changed by thoughtful emendation, or it can be corrupted and abandoned by thoughtless disregard. He helpfully identifies four characteristics of tradition: canon, archive, pantheon, and narrative. He does this for two reasons: first, to show liberals that tradition is something to value, not disdain, and second, to combat the conservative complaint of a culture in decline. If we can identify the sources of our tradition, we can revive those that are most important.

Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale, begins with the basic dichotomy of American civil religion, drawing on Robert Bellah’s distinction between “covenantal religion” and what he calls “civic republicanism.” The former is the largely dissenting Protestant groups who settled America; as Barry Shain and other historians have noted, the American colonists were basically scattered groups of evangelical Protestants. Civic republicanism, on the other hand is a different tradition derived from the example of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome. But Gorski adds an additional pair of approaches, what he calls radical secularism and religious nationalism. Radial secularism is the younger of the two, arising really only with the progressive era of early twentieth century. Religious nationalism is older, and has gone through several iterations, in which America is seen as a godly nation with a divine mission.

However, between the radicals of either side “leaves the rest of us: 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 science has all the answers. 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.” The righteous republic is Gorski’s term for what he also calls the “vital center,” a term made famous by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. This tradition is stronger than its counterparts, for various reasons. The radical secular view has emphasized autonomy—a legitimate strain of the American civil religion, just not the only one—and will not accept a compromise on protection of endless self-liberation. The religious fundamentalist view has the opposite problem: its correlation between theological orthodoxy and American power prevent it from reaching out to the many well-intentioned Americans without religious commitments. But a righteous republic combines both: a government that is composed of free citizens of all faiths and of none, but one that requires non-governmental limits and civic virtue, including the virtues that can be inculcated by religion.

One key event that changed the nation’s civic culture was the Second World War. The war and the subsequent fight against communism undermined two crucial components of the “old” civic republican tradition: fear of a standing army and the association of freedom with commercial prosperity. These two offshoots of the older civil republican tradition still bedevil conservatives. Many seem to think the military and the industries that support it are bulwarks of “the American way” rather than solvents of family and community bonds. The connection between economic growth and the nation is likewise mistaken. Love of money is the root of all evil, as one founding book of our civil religion tells us; and economic man is not necessarily the same as a free republican citizen.

The example of Martin Luther King, Jr. is also an important one in Gorski’s telling. I’m old enough to remember when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first established in the 1980s, much to the chagrin and opposition of conservatives. King was a womanizer and a leftist, the arguments went, and why should the country give up a day in honor of Washington or Lincoln to honor a controversial figure? These conservatives were wrong to oppose this inclusion of the holiday, and missed an opportunity to widen the conservative appeal to racial minorities. King, whatever his faults, was a great American, and one deeply placed in the American tradition. Gorski makes a compelling case that he was able to expand the promise of civil religion, to fully include African Americans in the national experiment, precisely because he was working within a tradition whose language and principles could be understood by other Americans. In this context, Gorski brings out the thought of Frederick Douglas, as someone who changed the nation’s view of “political time.” Rather than moving back to a golden age, Douglas was one who pushed forward what the founding documents meant, in particular he and others “broke once and for all the inegalitarian legacy of classical republicanism.”

Gorski has written an intellectual history centered on ideas and thinkers rather than institutions, power relationships, or popular culture. And he is right to focus on the very real ideologies of radical secularism and religious nationalism and threats to a center that is very much worth reviving. But the challenge is that the center can be too static. Changes to the civil religion often come from the margins, as each side tries to pull the civil religion in their direction. Thus compare King with the current controversies around “cultural appropriation.” This is not a real outgrowth of the civil religion but an imposition of an ideology. There is no real grammar or discourse around what can be culturally appropriated, and it runs counter to a long American tradition of a relatively free mixing of culture, cuisine, and styles.

This points to one minor amendment to Gorski’s learned and thoughtful analysis (aside from a quibble that Gorski takes, I think, at face value too much of Obama’s civic rhetoric). It is true that religious nationalism “is often accompanied by ritual violence against cultural and racial ‘others’” who threaten the godly order. Religious nationalists often simply object to their opponents with the language of sin or the mistaken view that Christianity and American patriotism are the same thing. But the common mode of radical secularists is also theological, in a way that Gorski perhaps underplays. That is, both play with apocalyptic tropes and the current progressive left, with its own rituals and purges, seems just as theological as the religious nationalists Gorski has in mind. Gorski calls out the “Enlightenment fundamentalists” who “insist that science has all the answers and will not deign to enter into dialogue with the great unwashed.” True, but as the description reveals, the “science” of at least some of these fundamentalists is simply a god in a lab coat.

Which leads us back to that ceremony at Yankee Stadium. As historians like Christopher Dawson like to remind us, people naturally seek the transcendent. It is the tragedy of recent American history that we have lost that common language, ether of a shared theology or devotion to republican principles. More people have seen Jeter play than ever will read Cotton Mather or James Madison, much less Arendt or Douglas. Video games, sports, and concerts are the main sources of engagement in our time, and they largely reflect the liberal secularism described here. Gorski has set the intellectual baseline to understand the differing strands of our civil religion. Those who wish to preserve the vital center need to translate those strands into a new fabric for the vital center.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).



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