Recovering America’s Vital Center: Between Religious Nationalism and Radical Secularism

 
 

The antidote to hyper-partisanship is a recovery of America’s tradition of civil religion. A new book by Philip Gorski takes up this difficult and subtle project.

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During the summer of 1989, I served as an intern for my congressman, George “Buddy” Darden, a Democrat representing the Seventh Congressional District of Georgia. I worked in Darden’s Marietta district office at the start of the summer, and then went to his Washington office in July and August, just before the 101st Congress broke up for the fall recess. It was a singular experience for me as a rising college sophomore, seeing the workings of the nation’s highest legislative body deliberating on the most important issues of the time during those hot summer days in the federal city.

I have vivid memories of seeing some of the towering figures of late twentieth century American politics in their DC routines, both ordinary and official. I met Senator John Kerry in the Senate cafeteria as he was eating his breakfast and scanning the day’s New York Times. I watched Senator Paul Simon of Illinois (remember him—the one with the bowtie?) as he took questions from reporters in the Small Senate Rotunda. I remember being in the House gallery during proceedings, irked by Representative Patricia Schroeder, propping her feet up on the chair of the member in front of her. And I will not forget watching liberal lion Edward Kennedy and other titans of the Senate stride into the chamber to take their seats while I watched from the gallery—an awesome spectacle.

The New York Times lamented in November 1989 that the 101st Congress had not accomplished very much that year. The Times also expressed concern over the partisanship rankling the discourse over the important policy issues surrounding defense, education, and Social Security. It described Washington as “a climate that is growing ever more campaign-driven.

The partisanship of 1989 seems quaint to those of us observing Washington politics in 2017. As I write this, Representative Steve Scalise is in critical condition after a gunman opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team as they practiced for their annual charity game with the Democrats. Philip Gorski, in his new book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, calls attention to the dangers that hyper-partisanship—religious nationalism on the right, radical secularism on the left—poses to our republic. If the American experiment is going to work at all, Gorski argues, the “vital center” must be recovered. This vital center is moored to “a common vision of the American project that is grounded in America’s civil religious tradition.”

Gorski’s book is a history of this civil religious tradition, but it is more than that. As he says in the opening pages, “the past provides an important starting point for thinking about the future.” Gorski also attempts to find the roots of the culture wars that have proven so debilitating to American civil discourse. He lays out how American civil religion has evolved over time, informed by two important traditions: civic republicanism and prophetic religion. And he critiques those on the outer fringes of the left and right who have each obscured and manipulated the history of civil religion in an effort to utterly annihilate the other side. Gorski’s project is to present this intellectual history in pursuit of an important goal: to rebuild America’s vital center, comprising American citizens on the left and right who are informed by a shared imagination grounded in a balance between republicanism and propheticism, using a language informed by that imagination that fosters authentic debate and compromise.

The project is ambitious and stately—and it demands a clearly articulated identification of central terms and their definitions. As a responsible and thoughtful scholar, Gorski does this at the outset of the book, considering terms like civic republicanism, prophetic religion, civil religion, religious nationalism, radical secularism, and tradition. He compares and contrasts the terms republicanism and liberalism, notes the relationship between religious nationalism and exceptionalism, shows how radical secularism is committed to total separation between church and state, and defines tradition in terms of ideas and the persons who advanced those ideas. He also underscores the relationship of change to tradition, arguing that dynamism is indispensable to any coherent tradition (and marks the difference between tradition and traditionalism). Religious nationalism on the right, radical secularism on the left, and civil religion in the center are the three rival traditions that Gorski is working with throughout his project. Anticipating the criticism that he is generalizing, Gorski stresses that these terms are “ideal types” meant to emphasize their differences. While religious nationalism and radical secularism are not internally consistent, historically accurate, or sociologically plausible, civil religion meets those criteria. It is the “cement of the common good to bind together the prophetic voice of the jeremiad with traditional themes of civic republicanism.”

Gorski’s project—and I mean to emphasize that his work is a project, because the book transcends the mere writing of a history or sociology of civil religion—merits our attention, but also our caution. Some of the most helpful aspects of Gorski’s book are his distinctions between republicanism and liberalism, his genealogies of religious nationalism and radical secularism, and the attention he gives to figures contributing to the civil religious tradition that are not normally associated with it. Republicanism and liberalism are distinguished most saliently by their understandings of freedom. Whereas liberalism defines freedom in terms of restraint, republicanism’s definition of freedom is more complex, entailing self-mastery, the rule of law, and active citizenship. He traces the roots of religious nationalism back to King Philip’s War (1675-1678) and the rise of apocalypticism and the influence of Old Testament conquest narratives in Puritan writings beginning in the early eighteenth century. He finds the beginnings of radical secularism in the work of Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), seeing “the seeds of total separationism” in Ingersoll and “those of radical individualism” in Sumner.

Finally, because Gorski wants to define tradition as ideas birthed from the minds of persons, he traces the development of civil religious tradition in the contributions of some of the usual suspects, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. But he also finds significance in lesser-known figures. Some examples: he contrasts mavericks like Thomas Morton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson with Puritan exceptionalists like Samuel Nowell and Cotton Mather. Jonathan Mayhew, Benjamin Rush, and Timothy Dwight demonstrate that Christianity and republicanism are not mutually exclusive. Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln counter the civil religious heresy of John C. Calhoun. The secular republicanism of John Dewey, Jane Addams, and W.E.B. Du Bois contrasts with the radical secularism of H.L. Mencken. And in more recent history, the religious nationalism of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell, who imagined American innocence and divine destiny, is in sharp distinction to the propheticism of Barack Obama, who was influenced by Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book—Gorski’s situating of numerous significant figures in the three competing traditions of left (radical secularism), right (religious nationalism), and center (civil religion). His introduction of these voices brings a vivid quality to the histories of these thought movements. And his pluralistic method of bringing in figures from perspectives other than simply white, male, and Protestant is helpful to his project of recovering a vital center. That vital center relies on pluralism, in terms of religious belief, gender, political philosophy, race, and class. And Gorski is right—if the citizens of the United States fail to recover a vital center with a shared civic imagination based on what he calls “prophetic republicanism,” then the keystone of this American experiment—compromise—will be lost.

But we must also be cautious about Gorski’s project. While the term was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, civil religion is still being developed in its American context. Gorski relies heavily—really, solely—on Robert Bellah’s formulations of the concept from the late 1960s and ’70s. But there has been more recent historical research done demonstrating that civil religion takes on an enormous variety of forms. Raymond Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (2012), Arthur Remillard’s Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era (2011), and David R. Krueger’s Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America (2015) bear out the malleability of civil religion’s meaning. It is notoriously difficult to define, ironically eluding the very virtue civil religion is supposed to achieve: unity. Before the American vital center can pursue Gorski’s project, it will need to come to consensus on the civil religious tradition. Is such consensus possible?

Further, Gorski’s assessment of American exceptionalism is excessively narrow. Gorski casts exceptionalism exclusively in terms of religious nationalism. To be sure, American exceptionalism can accurately be cast in those terms. Still, American exceptionalism—like civil religion—is a complex idea and can also be seen in the prophetic republican style that Gorski advocates throughout his book. It takes the same vigilance to cast exceptionalism in those terms as it does to envision Gorski’s view of civil religion. Rejecting exceptionalism as religious nationalism can undermine Gorski’s project because “American exceptionalism” and “American civil religion” are overlapping terms.

These criticisms aside, Gorski’s work is crucial. His understanding of the role of tradition, born from “historical experience and collective debate,” brings a unique contribution to the plea for civility in American discourse. His methodology, informed by author-centered hermeneutics and ideal typology, ensures that his interpretations of the tradition he studies will not rely on subjectivism. And while the meaning and place of civil religion in the American mind may still be in development, Gorski’s book represents long and consequential strides in the direction of citizens’ further appreciation and recognition of its role in debate and discourse.

John D. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He will be the 2017-18 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He is the author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015).

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