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American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present , by PHILIP GORSKI . Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press,  2017,  336 pp.; $35.00 (hardcover).Geneviève Zubrzycki
Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 4, 8 January 2018, Pages 492–494,https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srx052
16 November 2017

American society is at a crossroads. It is deeply divided and the level of public discourse is at an all-time low. Recovering and reviving the “vital center” of politics is crucial. American civil religion opens a path toward this goal, argues Philip Gorski in American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present. The book is at once an analysis and a plea: thus Gorski addresses readers “as citizens first and scholars second” (11). He offers a public sociology that combines social intervention with scientific rigor, historical breadth, and analytical depth. The writing is erudite, lucid, and elegant.

Gorski takes up the concept of civil religion from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s initial use of the phrase, but more immediately from his mentor Robert N. Bellah’s influential essay, “Civil Religion in America” (1967). Bellah argued in Durkheimian fashion that “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” existed in the United States from the beginning of the Republic (8). Bellah described that set of practices and phenomena as a religion; as a civil religion that was in no way “antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, and which “was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian” (8). Americancivil religion proper is an institutionalized collection of beliefs and rituals mixing together religious and secular imagery that sacralizes the American nation and endows it with a divine mission.

Bellah’s emphasis (like Gorski’s) was on a set of beliefs as they were articulated in canonical texts such as the constitution and presidential addresses, more than in specific rituals expressing outward faith in the American creed. More generally, civil religion in Bellah’s formulation refers to the “religious dimension found […] in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality” (1992:3). Civil religion, then, is a framework for understanding a nation’s history and identity and a guide to structure the present and future. For Gorski, Bellah’s definition is problematic insofar as it does not draw a sharp enough distinction between civil religion and religious nationalism. Gorski thus moves beyond civil religion per se to provide an analysis of civil religion’s relation to other political theologies coexisting and competing in American life. American Covenant’s main contribution to the social sciences lies precisely in presenting a nuanced and clear picture of the fields of religion and politics by introducing key distinctions between civil religion, religious nationalism, and radical secularism.

Together, these competing political theologies have shaped the American political landscape. In the right corner is American religious nationalism, which Gorski defines as 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. […] At its core, religious nationalism is just national self-worship. It is political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy” (2–3). In the left corner is the no less problematic “radical secularism,” “[a] blend 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” (2). Radical secularism is a synthesis of radical individualism and total “separationism” (78), the view according to which not only religious and political institutions should be separated (as advocated by civil religion), but that religion and politics grosso modo must be kept apart. Whereas radical secularism advocates for a total separation, and religious nationalism for maximum fusion (Figure 1, p. 18), civil religion concedes a partial overlap between religion and politics. As a via media between two extremes, one that is increasingly narrowing and at risk, civil religion must be rescued and drastically expanded if the United States is to fulfill its promise as a righteous Republic.

As Gorski writes, one of his goals in American Covenant is “to recuperate a certain tradition within American political culture to demonstrate that it has been a living and evolving tradition, and to identify certain exemplary figures within that tradition from whom we might still draw some measure of inspiration today” (11). How to carry out this salvage and recuperative mission? Gorski’s method is an archeology of those respective political theologies. He slowly digs and peels away layers of sediment to reveal how these theologies emerged and evolved, and how the relationships between them shifted over time. This is laborious work, built on a careful reading of canonical texts and a meticulous intellectual history of the ideological roots of these visions of the Republic. Gorski presents a genealogy of profiles: statesmen, political philosophers, public intellectuals, and religious leaders, from Abraham Lincoln to John C. Calhoun, to Frederick Douglass, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and Reinhold Niebuhr; from Hannah Arendt and Martin Luther King, to Reagan, Bush, and Obama.

Ultimately Gorski traces the beginnings of civil religion to earlier than Rousseau’s 1968 [1762] creation of the phrase to show that civil religion emerged in the Puritan period. This was “Godly Republicanism,” and it left a deep mark on American self-understanding via the borrowing of the Exodus narrative and its national canonization. The American Revolution and the Civil War further solidified a sense of divine destiny and covenant, ultimately shaping democratic republicanism. Closely related to civil religion, however, was a more insistent sense of exceptionalism as it developed into religious nationalism. Religious nationalism also originated in Puritan New England but matured later, during Reconstruction and the territorial expansion to the west and south, thanks to a rapid influx of immigrants during that period. By the last third of 1800s, “the basic elements of American religious nationalism were now assembled: empire, race, ethnicity and religion. In this vision, the true America was white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant and destined to rule the world” (97). As it expanded, its center moved from New England to the Old South, where it still thrives.

Radical secularism soon followed, arriving on the heels of the Civil War. While it crystalized in that period, it remained restricted to a small elite within the Republican party. Yet its seeds were sown among the liberal professions, in the ranks of lawyers, journalists, scientists, and teachers, a new class of knowledge workers who by the 1950s had displaced the old Protestant elites from the courts, the print media, and educational institutions (107). Gorski argues that while the introduction of full-blown radical secularism in the public sphere broke down the polarity between civil religion and nationalism, it actually further polarized political discourse, now structured by and around the two extremes, shrinking and enfeebling civil religion in the process, and thus preparing the way for the culture wars of the 1980s, which continue in the present.

Gorski concludes American Covenant with potential antidotes to the political corruption that has poisoned the Republic and chipped away at citizens’ shared civic sense: banishing big money from the political process, bringing civic holidays back to their roots, providing character-based civic education, and establishing a universal system of national service (229–230). These recommendations are meant to rebuild the “vital center” so that it can push back to the margins the leftist radical secularism and rightist religious nationalism responsible for waging the culture wars that have eroded the original American dream of the righteous Republic. This, Gorski argues, is not only imperative but urgent. He insists, “if we fail to rebuild the vital center it will mean the end not only of American democracy—what is now left of it, anyway—but of the American creed itself: e pluribus unum” (233). Gorski’s recommendations are sensible, yet in the present moment they appear far out of reach, and unlikely to be seriously taken by political elites and policymakers. One hopes the book will receive the attention it deserves beyond academia, and begin to sow seeds to make the recommendations more plausible, encouraging discussions of the state of civil society, democracy, and public discourse in the United States and beyond. Within academia itself, American Covenant is certain to make a mark. Gorski’s volume provides a rich archaeology of the ways that religion remains at the core of American society; and in so doing, returns the sociology of religion to the center of the discipline. It is required reading.



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