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What's left of the political center in America? A new book seeks answers

Originally Published in The Casper Star Tribune, July 4, 2017

Nebulous lines and shifting policies make it difficult to know where the culture wars start and end in America. It’s no secret that chasms are growing wide, and walls are getting taller. In a new book, sociologist Philip Gorski elegantly traces two diverging lines of popular ideology, arguing convincingly that our current political gap isn’t new. Rather, it’s a part of a deeply ingrained battle for control between two American religious traditions that date back to before our country was founded.

In “American Covenant,” Gorski portrays a political culture split between conservative, apocalyptic nativists — who believe themselves to be the inheritors of the fiery religious fundamentalism of the early Puritans — and atheist liberals, the cultural elitist heirs of the Enlightenment’s secular rationalism. While one side wants freedom of religion, the other side wants freedom from it. Yet Gorski puts forth that the unifying tissue between these two camps is the American “civil religion,” a concept pioneered by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 that seeks to describe the foundational shared ideals that both sides can agree upon.

That’s a promising thought.

But for all the discussion of so-called civil religion in Gorski’s book, he manages to barely discuss what it looks like. Sure, there are quasi-religious rituals existing within our national life, such as the sacrosanct Fourth of July, and numerous depictions of “Civil Religious art,” like The Apotheosis of Washington painted on the dome of the U.S. Capitol. But at its heart, what are the core doctrinal creeds that Gorski argues have the power to unite America? Sadly, they’re not as easy to identify as one would hope. Of course, if they were, perhaps we wouldn’t have such a fractured political landscape in the first place. And given that the two groups Gorski describes are so different, it is unsurprising that he struggles to describe the space where their views overlap, thus challenging the entire premise of so-called civil religion.

If Gorski’s two camps sound a bit extreme, that’s because they are. With its blustery descriptions of apocalyptic Hebrew prophets and enlightened freethinkers, the story of civil religion in “American Covenant” can come across like fantasy. Gorski describes the relationships between religious nationalism, radical secularism, and civil religion as akin to tribal warfare with ancient roots. Comparing the United States that Gorski depicts to stories like Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings might be unfair, but the author certainly manages to show how both sides of the religion and political divide in America see themselves as the hero’s of a polarized moral universe in which each side’s noble prophets serve as leading actors in a showdown between good and evil.

Gorski highlights some of the radically different ideas that exist at the nexus of each side’s prophetic thought, focusing on important thinkers across the spectrum from Martin Luther King himself to John Calhoun. Yet, while Gorski himself writes that his civil religion is “a panoramic portrait of a diverse people marching together through time toward a promised land across landscapes both light and dark…hopeful without being fantastical, and progressive without being naively optimistic,” the traditions from which he draws on aren’t all that diverse.

Gorski offers civil religion as a framework for maintaining the political center in our country — the famed “moderates” that are much discussed by pollsters during election years yet who seem to be absent from Washington, D.C. But Gorski paints this type of religion as possessed of a single, Judeo-Christian and largely white lineage. While it is undeniable that there is an extreme emphasis on “Judeo-Christian” tradition within the United States, is there room in our unique civil religion for the traditions of other cultures? While there are some Jews and African Americans mentioned as “prophets” of the civil religion outlined by Gorski, what of the Asian, African, Mexican or Native American religious traditions that exist in the United States?

A more fruitful conversation about what it means to be moderate in America will likely require the inclusion of more cultural voices than appear in “American Covenant.” The civil religion of the nation’s founding was forged by European immigrants. If the movement is to survive our current, fractious politics, perhaps we should consider that its defining characteristics in the future may not come from within our tradition at all — just as none of its founders did.

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