American Covenant, Philip Gorski. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Summary: Traces and argues for an American civil religious tradition combining prophetic religion and civic republicanism that avoids the extremes of religious nationalism and radical secularism.
Philip Gorski is one who has looked at the history of America’s culture wars and asks if there is another alternative to what he sees as the extremes of religious nationalism and radical secularism. He believes that there is and that it has a long history. He proposes that there may be a form of “civil religion” that is not invidious and that it is critical that we retrieve and strengthen a tradition that he believes has been at the center of our national life and combines what he calls “prophetic religion” and “civic republicanism.” He calls this “prophetic republicanism.”
Although Gorski suggests that the reader may skip chapter one, I would argue that it is essential to understand how he defines the above terms, which he will use throughout the book. I would particularly recommend keeping a marker on the diagrams on page 19. To briefly summarize, religious nationalism is sees America as a divinely chosen nation and fuses religious fervor, patriotism, a willingness to shed blood and often an apocalyptic vision in triumphing over evil. On the other hand, radical secularism tries to deny any positive influence of religion in our history or any expression of it in the public square. Civic republicanism understands that sovereignty rests with the people but can only succeed where civil virtue exists. Prophetic religion is the strain that continues to call the nation to justice and righteousness for all people, epitomized in the presidency of Lincoln and the lives of W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. among others.
The next six chapters survey our history in six periods: the New England Puritans, the American Revolution, The Civil War, The Progressive Era, the Post-World War II era of Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, and the period from Reagan to Obama, where he believes the prophetic republican position was corrupted and almost recovered. In each period, he traces both the development of a civic republican tradition and the religious nationalist and radical secularist strains. He not only survey events but offers a tour on American intellectual history from John Winthrop through Hamilton and Jefferson, to John Calhoun and Frederick Douglass in the Civil War period.
The chapter on the progressive period was most fascinating as he explores John Dewey, Jane Adams, W.E.B,. DuBois, and Reinhold Niebuhr. On the extremes, we explore the religious nationalism of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and the radical secularism of H. L. Mencken. In the post World War II chapter he introduces us to the works of Hannah Arendt and John Courtney Murray, the Catholic social thinker. He then argues that beginning with the Reagan years, we witnessed a corrupting of a civic republic tradition toward a religious nationalism, offset by Democrat leaders who tilted toward a radical secularism until Obama tried to revive something of a civil religious tradition, although the author argues that this failed to return to republican ideals.
He concludes by arguing for the superiority of prophetic republicanism over the alternatives and some modest recommendations for how a healthy civil religious tradition that supports prophetic republicanism might be implemented. He contends,
“…we are, or at least aspire to be, a sovereign and democratic people. We are part of a collective, multigenerational project, an ongoing effort to realize a set of universal political ideals–above all, freedom and equality–from within the confines of a particular historical trajectory. Some of us are thrown into this project by birth; others enter into it by immigration. We are part of an ever-expanding river, flowing through historical time toward an uncertain future. Our civic conversation concerns those who have entered and exited the stream before us, and the course we hope to steer into the future. It is a dialogue in which quiet conservatives and open-minded progressives might become reengaged.”
I do believe Gorski offers a rendering of our history and a vision of what we need to recover that is compelling. I also sense that there is indeed a group of people, perhaps a majority of Americans, who long for a recovery of the kind of prophetic republican tradition he articulates. They wish neither to commit America to a religious crusade nor divorce spiritual values from public discourse. They sense power continues to be concentrated into the hands of the few and that the will of the people is not being heard. Rather than culture war, they want to recover a vibrant public square and deliberative processes that pursue the best approximation to common good possible for fallible humans.
What I wish I could talk with Gorski about is what prospects he sees for such a recovery and from whence would it come? In our post-Citizens United, highly gerrymandered, toxically divisive political scene, what is the way back? It seems only an engaged citizenry with a clear vision shaped by the kind of prophetic republicanism Gorski writes of, could counter the polarized and concentrated power we see on our federal government scene. What most troubles me is that most of the responses I see are merely competing forms of outrage rather than a civic vision seeking the common good of all our people.
Gorski’s book provides, on a high level, the kind of education for citizenship, for republican virtue (not of the party-type) that we desperately need. It is the kind of education needed with our rising generation, as well as for all who sense that neither of the extremes of our culture war offer a good vision for our national life. It offers a substantive alternative and not a bland compromise to our polarized discourse. I only hope someone notices.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.