August 27, 2017


A Righteous Republic? : A conversation with Philip Gorski ; author of American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present  (Interviewed by GERALD J. RUSSELLO, University Bookman)

UB: What is a nation's civil religion, and how would you describe America's?

PG: A nation's civil religion--to paraphrase my mentor, Robert Bellah--consists of the stories and rituals, the symbols and "saints" that connects a people to some sense of higher purpose. On my reading of the founding documents, America's civil religious creed dedicates us to four cardinal values: (1) freedom based on "republican government"; (2) equality of a fundamental kind; (3) the common good or "common welfare"; and (4) social inclusion of a diverse citizenry ("e pluribus unum").

Balancing those commitments is not easy, of course. They are in considerable tension with each other. Economic freedom can lead to social inequality, for example. The goal of social inclusion can lead to attacks on free speech. Still, ordering and balancing these values in some reasonable way is what we are collectively committed to.

One of the distinctive features of the American version of civil religion is that it draws on both sacred and secular sources. As such, it can potentially speak to people of faith and of no faith, and possibly even bind them together.

UB: What do you see as the vulnerabilities of a common civil religion?

PG: One danger is that it devolves into a culture of national self-worship and collective self-congratulation that turns the nation into a god, and its denizens into heroes. A healthy civil religion recognizes the frailty of any institution that is constructed out of the crooked timber of humanity. Some argue that the Puritans' emphasis on original sin was a curse. I would argue that it was their greatest gift to posterity. It kept us humble, at least for a while.

Another danger is that it excludes too many. For much of our history, the civil religion had a Protestant and "Anglo-Saxon" cast that left Catholics and Jews in the shadows. That changed in the decades following World War II, when civil religion was recast in "Judeo-Christian" and broadly European terms. The challenge now is to expand the tradition further to accommodate an even more diverse citizenry. This will not be easy. But we have succeeded in broadening the tent in the past, so we have some grounds for hope.

In fact, the civil religion did not change; it worked.  We not only extended our cultural conformity to all those immigrant groups but then extended it globally to re-make the places they had come from and the religions they practiced in our image. That's all the End of History and globalization are.

Posted by at August 27, 2017 8:02 AM