American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present
Princeton University Press, 2017, 320 pp., $35
Authors, especially academic ones, live in constant fear that some other scholar is working on the same subject and scheduled for nearly simultaneous publication. In such cases one’s own book may be preempted or at best compete for the attention of the targeted audience. That may seem to have happened with Yale Professor Philip Gorski’s survey of American civil religion, given that my own latest book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, appeared just a few months before (and from Gorski’s own university press).
However, it turns out that the two books do not clash at all; indeed, they complement each other in an elegant fashion. For Gorski (his subtitle notwithstanding) is a sociologist, not an historian, and American Covenant is devoted exclusively to the American civil religion as a domestic phenomenon whereas Tragedy is devoted exclusively to foreign affairs. Nevertheless, both books were inspired by sociologist Robert Bellah, who first noticed and described “American Civil Religion” in the 1967 edition of the journal Daedalus, and both tell a story of strife and declension among rival civil theologies.
Have you ever heard of Deep Springs College, surely one the strangest institutions of higher learning in the United States? It is located on a ranch in an otherwise empty valley in California’s High Sierra. The nearest town, about 25 miles away, is Dyer, Nevada, population 250. The admissions process is highly selective and college enrollment tiny, just 25 to 30 students. The curriculum rests upon the three pillars of academics, self-government, and work, because every student devotes at least twenty hours per week as cowboys or ranch hands. After two years the students transfer, invariably to the University of California, Stanford, or the Ivy League. Gorski is an alumnus of that remote secular monastery where, he attests, the works of Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville are passed around like sacred texts. He then graduated from Harvard, took a Ph.D. at Berkeley, where Bellah was his mentor, and taught at the University of Wisconsin before being named co-director of comparative research at Yale. In previous books he has studied the impact of Calvinism, the Protestant ethic, and state-building on early modern Europe, an excellent objective vantage point from which to observe the mystical, magical, shape-shifting American civil religion (ACR).
Gorski labels its dominant strain “prophetic republicanism,” which he describes as a more nuanced version of what Bellah called civic republicanism or covenantal religion back in the 1970s. More nuanced because the loudest voices today no longer emanate from the “vital center” of ACR, but rather from two of its extremes. The first trumpets religious nationalism, a toxic brew of apocalyptic zeal, which idolizes the United States as a uniquely virtuous Christian nation endowed by Almighty God with a mission to battle falsehood and evil until the end times. The other trumpets radical secularism, a toxic blend of cultural elitism and militant atheism, which damns the United States as a deeply flawed nation that progressive politics can fix only if atavistic religion is driven from the public square. The upshot, Gorski contends, has been a polarizing culture war that has tormented Americans at least since the 1990s. In other words, the author does not see ACR declining so much as evolving, but also drifting ever further into polarized and polarizing heterodoxy.
American Covenant is not strictly narrative and has little to say about power and institutions. Its methodology is to examine the intellectual biographies of representative figures from each historical era and describe their understandings of the American project. That method is liable to invite specialists to question Gorski’s choices in a debate that can degenerate into a parlor game. For instance, one may ask why he omits Orestes Brownson, a 19th-century Yankee Unitarian who was the most prolific political philosopher in U.S. history, an adult convert to the Catholic Church, and a lifelong devotee of ACR. But the figures he does select are all good exemplars of his three major strains of civil theology. He makes his own strong preference explicit by praising prophetic republicanism and critiquing religious nationalism and radical secularism, both of which fail the test of healthy civil religion because they tend to violate their own American values, provide no plausible interpretation of the American past, and offer no feasible vision of the American future. He calls his methodology “critical hermeneutics,” by which he means situating influential people in their historical contexts and criticizing those whose ideas reflect a “one-sided reading of the civil religious tradition.” The result is didactic, not exactly an historian’s style, but quite compatible with good sociology.
American Covenant is peppered with lists, categories, and ideal types carefully defined and distinguished. For instance, people with an apocalyptic worldview read biblical texts in four dangerous ways: predictively, literally, premillenially, and vindictively. Prophetic republicans are distinguished from secular liberals insofar as they resist being literal or figurative slaves to their own passions, and assume the role of active citizens. Radical individualists draw on three sorts of philosophy—social atomism, libertine libertarianism, and common-sense utilitarianism—and so on. However, the necessary jargon does not occlude Gorski’s elegant, indeed quotable, writing style.
One can argue with Gorski’s conventional account of the ACR’s etiology, which he traces back to the Puritans. Accordingly, John Winthrop, Thomas Morton, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Samuel Nowell, and Cotton Mather all pass in review, while the Quakers of the Delaware Valley, the Cavalier planters in the Chesapeake, and the Scots-Irish frontiersmen—those other three cradle cultures described in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed—are all absent. But Gorski is correct to suggest that New England’s culture played an outsized role in the American founding and later exerted dominance, if not hegemony, over the nation as a whole. He alludes to J.G.A. Pocock’s “Machiavellian moment” and attributes to Hebraic republicanism Americans’ belief in themselves as a new Chosen People in a new Promised Land.
Did the American Revolution and Founding give birth to a Christian nation, as religious nationalists claim, or to a secular republic, as progressive liberals claim? Gorski says the “correct answer” is neither, and he is correct. The Founders established a society and government inspired both by republicanism ancient and modern and by biblical principles, though their religious spectrum ranged widely from Baptist to Deist (hence their commitment to the free exercise of religion). Such Hebraic republicanism derived from the 17th-century Dutch and English revolts against monarchy and its exponents came to include Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Mayhew, Benjamin Rush, and Timothy Dwight. Their Calvinist creed that blessed charity, community, self-government, and ordered liberty became explicit in the words “covenant” and “commonwealth.” That original, healthy ACR is what stands in judgment upon religious nationalists who tend to fuse sectarian religion and the state, radical secularists who forcibly fence off the state from religion, and libertarians who worship liberty in separation from, even rejection of, equality and community.
The Civil War cut many new channels through which all the civil religious currents spilled. Everyone associates the main channel with Abraham Lincoln, whom Gorski pairs with Frederick Douglass, the brilliant fugitive from slavery. They led the vanguard that transformed sacred history into a “progressive spiral.” That is, mainstream Americans (outside the South) now understood their nation’s teleology to be neither a return to some golden age nor a leap to some heaven on earth, but the pilgrimage of an “almost chosen people” toward the realization of America’s founding principles. But the Civil War era also perversely strengthened religious nationalism (especially in the South), plus radical secularism of a progressive or conservative ilk. Gorski’s illustrative progressive is Robert Ingersoll, the celebrated orator who popularized the agnosticism of English Darwinist Thomas Huxley. His illustrative conservative is William Graham Sumner, the erstwhile pastor turned Yale professor, who popularized the laissez faire economics of English Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer. But both applied natural selection to human society, celebrated science and technology, and prepared the intellectual ground for the Progressive Era.
The chapter on that era unfortunately tries to cover too much ground. (My own chapters covering 1898 to 1941 were vexing to organize and much longer than planned, so I understand the dilemma.) Still, Gorski sticks to his guns by limiting the treatment of that frenetic era to a representative sample that includes John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhr, H.L. Mencken, and Aimee Semple McPherson. As always, he passes judgment on his figures depending on whether they remained near the ACR’s vital center or wandered into hyper- or anti-religious heresy. Curiously, none of the era’s dramatic political events—think Spanish-American War, U.S. imperialism, the reforms of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the Great War, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition—appears in the book except in passing as a backdrop to intellectual trends. But that’s all right, because my own book covers them all.
An early crescendo comes in the chapter on the post-World War II era, whose healthy trends are personified by Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Courtney Murray, the patriotic Catholic who figuratively baptized the ACR. But the Cold War also “fanned the flames of sacrificial apocalypticism” and made the unhealthy strain of religious nationalism a durable fact of American life. The principal reasons accounting for that were nuclear weapons, the demonization of communism, the sacralization of the U.S. military, and the rapid spread of premillennial dispensationalism (the belief that the second coming of Christ will be preceded by terrible wars and calamities known as the tribulation). Gorski ends that chapter with an obiter dictum to the effect that the youth movements of the 1960s might really have constituted a revolt against “the technocratic and therapeutic liberalism of the mid-twentieth century.” Almost exactly the same thing occurred to me while composing Tragedy, inspired in turn by Adam Garfinkle’s 1995 book Telltale Hearts.
Finally, Gorski describes the civil faiths of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, both of whom were controversial, misunderstood pastors of the ACR. Reagan eschewed the prophetic tradition, seemed to deny original sin, and encouraged “shining city on a hill” national pride and materialist self-indulgence. But contrary to left-wing critiques, Reagan was not a religious nationalist and his theology had little in common with that of the Moral Majority. Obama’s mentors included zealous Old Testament-like prophets such as Jeremiah Wright and civil religious saints such as Douglass, DuBois, King, and Niebuhr. But contrary to right-wing critiques, Obama was not a radical secularist. In fact, he explicitly confessed his faith in the ACR and stood near its vital center.
In his last chapter Gorski proposes four reforms meant to combat the corruptions that have eroded the ACR and restore a prophetic republic in which compassion, self-discipline, and balance between liberty and equality might again reign supreme. First, drive big money out of the political process in order to give free speech among ordinary citizens enough air to breathe. Second, make celebrations like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving into civil holidays again by enforcing blue laws and banning sporting events. Third, restore genuine civics courses to school curricula. Fourth, enact compulsory national service for both sexes. None of those common-sense reforms should be controversial, but in truth, all of them would generate angry resistance from one or more wings of one or both political parties, since both parties are strewn with heterodox ACR extremists who have hollowed out its vital center.
These few eloquent sentences pretty much say it all:
If the preceding chapters have shown anything, is that the roots of our culture wars are very, very deep. The religious national script was not penned by Jerry Falwell in the 1970s; it was written by Cotton Mather in the 1700s. The radical secularist script was not dreamed up by Jane Fonda in the 1960s; it was put together by Robert Ingersoll after the Civil War. This, alas, is the price of historical amnesia; being an old actor in an old scene and thinking it’s opening night.
The deep truth Gorski expresses amounts to a confession that no nation can ever return to a golden age that never existed. The ACR was indeed contested from its very inception. What is more, history happens, and history moves only in one direction, which is forward in time. So it would appear (though I may be mistaken) that Gorski is now where I myself was in 1997, when in an earlier book I urged post-Cold War America to kick the habit of playing Crusader State and recover the habit of being a Promised Land. I have since surrendered that hope and suspect Gorski, twenty years on, may also despair. But for the moment he has written a tightly reasoned, passionate book urging Americans to restore civility, rebuild the center, and remember to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.