American Covenant

A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present

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Philip Gorski
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     2017.
     336 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691147673.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has also been reviewed in JAAR by Ted A. Smith.

In American Covenant, Philip Gorski sets out to provide specialists and nonspecialists alike with an account of the development of civil religion from the Puritans to the present. For Gorski, “the United States was not founded as a Christian nation or a secular republic, but as a prophetic republic” (202). The book not only provides a history of civil religion in the United States; it also makes a case for its importance for the success or failure of the American experiment.

Gorski begins his project by introducing readers to the three central concepts of the book. On the extreme right, we find 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” (2). On the extreme left, American radical secularism provides “an equally noxious 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). Gorski rejects these paths as “political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy” and “political illiberalism dressed up as liberal politics,” respectively (2–3). Framed as the path between Scylla and Charybdis, Gorski advocates for “civil religion”—a “prophetic republicanism”—that feeds a culture of “ecumenism, generosity, and civic friendship” (3). The civil religion is “neither idolatrous nor illiberal,” recognizes “both the sacred and the secular sources of the American creed,” provides “a political vision that can be embraced by believers and nonbelievers alike,” and remains “capacious enough to incorporate new generations of Americans” (4).

Chapters 2 to 4 trace the threads of civil religion, religious nationalism, and radical secularism from the establishment of Puritan New England (the first founding) through the Civil War (the first refounding). As the United States began to develop and pull away from England, Gorski argues, the American founders generally understood republicanism and Christianity as complementary, rather than opposed, united by the shared emphasis on the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Importantly, we see apocalyptic religious nationalism largely in relief during this period: with very few exceptions, it is missing in the political discourse. The second founding of America was not established on the premise of radical secularism, but neither was it grounded in a distinctly “Christian” tradition. The Civil War would continue to witness a prophetic republicanism (e.g., Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln), but also a religious nationalism, with its new rhetoric of “blood atonement” accomplished by the war. Against this backdrop, one better understands the reactionary rise of radical secularism that began during Reconstruction.

The remainder of the book (chapters 5–7) follows the development of religious nationalism, radical secularism, and civil religion from the first half of the twentieth century through the presidency of Barack Obama. During the first decades of the twentieth century, figures like John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, and W.E.B. Du Bois responded to increasing secularity, diversity, and power. In addition, influential advocates of premillennial dispensationalism (a branch of conservative evangelicalism) such as Aimee Semple McPherson, contributed to the development of contemporary American religious nationalism by infusing political discourse with deeply apocalyptic ideas and rhetoric. In the decades following World War II, public intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Courtney Murray—each in their own way—enlivened the Athenian roots of Western democracy, reengaged the prophetic republicanism of the Hebrew tradition, and reintegrated the prophetic and republican strands of the civil religious tradition. On the heels of the civil rights era, Gorski argues, liberal Democrats who discarded the civil religious tradition tended to fail in their presidential bids, while conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush corrupted the civil religious tradition with Christian nationalism and succeeded. In the shadow of the loss and corruption of a deeply prophetic republicanism, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign becomes an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to revive civil religion. The book concludes with ruminations on the benefits of the civil religion over religious nationalism and radical secularism. At the end of the day, American civil religion’s focus on justice, freedom, and equality best supports our democratic experiment.

The arrival of American Covenant rings of serendipity and presents much to consider for those interested in civil discourse and the relationship between the state and the religious commitments of its citizens. First, the release of American Covenant comes on the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Bellah’s seminal article, “American Civil Religion” (Daedalus 1967: 1–21). Second, the book went to press on the heels of the 2016 presidential election, in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. The three frontrunners in the election each represented one of the Gorski’s key actors. On the extreme left, Bernie Sanders advocated a radical separation of the state and from religion (radical secularism). Hillary Clinton worked within the frame work of civil religion (similar to that of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton). And, of course, Donald Trump played to religious nationalists (the connection between “Christian nationalists” and Donald Trump has been elucidated by the recent Baylor Religion Survey, Wave V).

Gorski’s central thesis resonates with the work of Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich (Biological Theory 5 [2010]: 18–30) on the evolution of religion, which emphasizes the development and ascendency of religions through their prosocial benefits. Thus framed, prophetic republicanism, as articulated by Gorski, offers the most benefit to the most Americans. Even if both radical secularism (#feelthebern) and religious nationalism (#makeamericagreatagain) are experiencing an apparent resurgence today, the emphasis on universal justice, derived from the Hebrew prophets and the founding documents, provides a more adaptable and thus palatable civil religion for American consumption.

This book is indispensable reading for lay readers and specialists alike, but it will be of particular interest to graduate students and scholars of American religion, political scientists, and critics of presidential rhetoric. It is highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael R. Whitenton is lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Gorski is professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University. His books include The Protestant Ethic Revisited and The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe.

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