Philip Gorski explores the history of the ‘American Civil Religion’

In his recently published book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, Yale professor Philip Gorski explores how the American tradition has both sacred and secular sources and how those sources have been entwined since the founding of New England and the United States.

Gorski, who is professor of sociology and of religion and Acting Chair of the European Studies Council at the MacMillan Center, believes that this dynamic creates space for people coming from different perspectives to engage with each other on the wide terrain of civil religion. Civil religion, says Gorski, is found in many societies and is a sense in which a particular nation or a people understand themselves in relation to some higher sense of values or goals. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be religious in the stricter sense of term,” he adds.

In the case of the United States, says Gorski, the “American Civil Religion” draws equally on sacred and secular elements: the sacred element being the biblical narrative of Exodus, and the secular element being the ideal of a republican self-government. “This enables people of faith — or no faith — to embrace the core tenants of the United States’ civic creed.”

In American Covenant, Gorski uses historical figures — including John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jane Addams — to exemplify the meaning of civil religion.

Gorski recently spoke to YaleNews about the event that inspired him to write the book, how he incorporates the concepts in the book in his classroom teaching, and why writing the book was “a voyage of self discovery” for him. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. (view The MacMillan Report interview with Gorski)

What inspired you to write a book on this topic?

The idea for the book originated almost nine years ago during the middle of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. At that time, there was an uproar over videos of sermons by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of a large congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago. The Obamas had belonged to that church when they were both living in Chicago. The videos were controversial because Wright said very critical things about America, and for a while, it looked like Obama’s campaign was in jeopardy as a result of his association with this pastor. Then Obama gave a powerful speech on race which was very widely viewed and very highly praised. The thing that struck me about the speech at the time was that the story he told built very much on the biblical narrative of Exodus. In the speech, Obama talked about the original sin of slavery, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution as founding covenants or contracts. He spoke about the way the American people had wandered and slid back, and how, in a sense, they had marched forward eventually finding their way towards the promised land of racial inclusion and equality. That was the narrative in the speech. People commended it for the intelligent and subtle way it delved into race relations in the United States.

I was really struck by this narrative because it mirrored a well-known article that Robert Bellah, my thesis supervisor in graduate school, had written in 1967, called “American Civil Religion.” In the article he pointed to exactly this — the way in which a certain kind of narrative taken from the Bible had been very important to a particular understanding of what America was about. I started out thinking that I would provide some deeper historical background about this aspect of Obama’s speech that a lot of people seem to have missed, but the book ended up being something quite different. In the end the book recounted the history at the development of this tradition from New England up to the present day.

What is the “American Experiment”?

The “American Experiment” is a way of trying to make a nation of nations and a people of peoples and to build a system of self-government in a large country. It has often been argued that you could not have a successful republican government in a large territory unless you had a very homogeneous people. The “American Experiment” is an attempt to prove that that is not true.

Did you uncover anything surprising during your research for this book?

Writing this book was voyage of self-discovery for me. I hadn’t really read American history in any serious way since high school or my early years in college. I learned a lot in that sense because I was trained as a European historian. One thing that was very interesting to me was the role that the Exodus narrative and certain Old Testament stories had played in American self-understanding from the very beginning. During the American Revolution, for example, the idea that many Americans had for self-government was not the Athenian Republic or the Roman Republic, it was what they called the Hebrew Republic. Many of the Founders believed that the Hebrew Republic was the kind of government that God preferred for the ancient Israelites. It was a self-governing republic. Monarchy was a dangerous form of government because it could easily lead to idolatry — that is, to the worship of the monarch or the leader. It was for that reason that people who considered themselves a righteous people should eschew a monarchy or dictatorship in favor of collective self-government. It’s a point that I’m afraid is relevant to our current moment.

How do you incorporate the topics in this book into your classroom teaching?

I’m hesitant to make students read my own work more than is necessary, but it has absolutely informed my classroom teaching. I teach courses on the sociology of religion; religion and politics; classical and contemporary social theory; and populism. Religion and politics is something that is an omnipresent topic in American current affairs, so I will oftentimes use something that is currently in the news, or something that has recently come into the news, as a way of stimulating a conversation with my students about a particular subject.

In the book I distinguish between civil religion and religious nationalism. Religious nationalism is when only a member of a certain religious group can be a member or a citizen of a nation. This is a concept that I hadn’t really understood until I started doing research for this book, but religious nationalism is a phenomenon that you find in many times and places all over the world. There are very startling commonalities between Buddhist religious nationalism, Islamic nationalism, and Christian nationalism. For one thing, they tend to have an apocalyptic view of history. They tend to think about history as a cosmic showdown between good and evil — in which, of course, they are on the side of good and everyone else is on the side of evil.

You wrote about a very diverse group of historians in your book. Whose message was the most meaningful to you?

A personal favorite of mine, who is perhaps less known today, is the Protestant theologian Reinhold NIebuhr, who is an alumnus of the Yale Divinity School. His brother Richard Niebhur taught at the Divinity School for many years. It might seem like an unlikely choice because the thing that Niebuhr was best known for was reviving the doctrine of original sin, but he understood it in a way that is different than the way that many people understand it today. For him, the original sin was pride or self-love. He had a very subtle analysis of the ways in which excessive pride tends to color our perceptions of ourselves and other people, and can also lead to quite dangerous political phenomenon, including modern religious nationalism — which is a term that he uses to describe a form of collective pride and collective self-worship. It is also, he believed, one that is especially attractive to people because you may see and escape your own shortcomings by identifying with something that seems more powerful than yourself such as your country, your race, or your ethnicity. Niebuhr worried that those are in some ways the most dangerous forms of pride and self-love because collectivities, countries, and states are or can be very powerful, especially if they turn to the wrong ends.

What do you hope your students learn from you?

I think part of what I hope my students learn — apart from substance — is that they develop a capacity for civil dialogue about these very controversial topics. I try to model that in the classroom as much as I can, and I also try to provide a space in which students feel comfortable about talking about and raising questions about topics that might be difficult for them or feel risky for them to raise just with their friends or outside of the classroom. They can talk about these questions in a serious way and then walk away, and there won’t be any hard feelings or vituperation afterwards.

How do you think the messages in your book will resonate with the public?

There are many Americans who, like me, are really disheartened by our current division and by the level of vitriol that exists, and are unsure of what — if anything — does or could still unite us. This book is my attempt to answer that question.

Written by Bess Connolly Martell for YaleNews.

April 20, 2017