Religion & American politics:

Class, nation and covenant

posted by Philip S. Gorski

Over the past few days, Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech has been accessed millions of times on YouTube and dissected in dozens of articles. Understandably, most of the analyses have focused on race. That, after all, was its central theme.

Or was it? In this posting, I would like to draw attention to three other, more submerged themes in the speech that have received little if any notice so far: class, nation, and covenant. Not that these themes are disconnected from race. On the contrary, it is by subtly injecting themes of class, patriotism, and covenant into the debate that Obama proposes to engage his critics, secure the Democratic nomination, transcend the Reagan coalition, and win back the White House. The stakes, then, are as high as could be.

Whether he succeeds in the latter endeavors will depend on whether he succeeds on the first front: defusing the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright and calming the fears of white middle-class voters that he is just another angry, black, man – a Black Panther in sheep’s clothing. Should he succeed, and face John McCain this fall, the “More Perfect Union” speech and right-wing responses to it provide a clear sense of the terms of engagement: civil religion vs. crusader nationalism.

Civil Religion: Socio-Historical Conditions of Possibility

Before examining these alternatives in more detail, I would like to frame the choice in broad terms. Very broad terms. I begin with the Axial Age breakthrough. As many readers of this blog will know, the Axial Age concept was coined by Karl Jaspers. It is bounded at by the appearance of The Buddha, continues through the development of Classical Hinduism, Confucianism, Second Temple Judaism and Christianity and closes with the death of Mohammed. Its unity derives from a set of parallel developments that occurred in and around the great empires of classical Eurasia, from China through South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean basin. These developments included: 1) the postulation of a transcendent or supra-mundane reality that was superior to, and discontinuous with, the sensible and the mundane; 2) the emergence of a new class of priestly intellectuals who had considerable material and symbolic autonomy from the state and its rulers; 3) the emergence of trans-local religious movements that crosscut existing ethnic and political boundaries.

As Max Weber – and Thomas Mann – recognized over a century ago, the Axial Age breakthrough shattered the ontological unity of the world, above all, the unity of state and cult, thereby introducing a deep and irresoluble tension between politics and religion that is one of the fundamental features of the last two millennia of world history. The depth of the tension derives from the fact that religious and political elites and institutions have much to gain by allying with one another and will therefore be inclined to engage in quid pro quos of one sort or another, like, for instance, legitimation for protection. The irresolubility of the tension derives from the fact that their means and their ends are fundamentally at odds with one another: ultimate truth and otherworldly salvation, on the one hand, and physical violence and worldly power on the other.

To say that the tensions are logically irresoluble does not mean that they are practically irresoluble. Indeed, Weber identified one, relatively stable equilibrium point, which he referred to as an “organic social ethics.” They involved folding a vertical social imaginary (e.g., “feudalism”) into an enchanted cosmic imaginary, such that the distribution of power and the division of labor within society were aligned with religious vocations and duties. The Medieval Christian formula of the three orders – laboratories, oratores et bellatores – represents one example.

The Tension Refigured: Secularism, Civil Religion and Religious Nationalism

In modern societies, however, the equilibrium of the organic social ethic is no longer viable. Vertical social imaginaries have been discredited and supplanted by the horizontal social imaginaries of the democratic polity and the national community. Vertical cosmic imaginaries have been supplanted by unmediated religions of personal faith and inner experience.

What forms does the tension take today?

In the context of Western, democratic, nation-states, there have been three main solutions to the “church-state problem”: liberal secularism, civil religion and religious nationalism. By liberal secularism, I mean a juridico-legal system that disestablishes churches and privatizes religion. (For purposes of the present analysis, I am treating republican secularism, such as one finds in France or Turkey, as an extreme variant of liberal secularism, of the sort that exists within the Atlantic world.) By civil religion, I mean a sacralization of the democratic polity and a celebration of the sovereign people that borrows heavily from theistic language and ritual. By religious nationalism, finally, I mean a sacralization of the national state and the election of the common people that glorifies blood sacrifice and rejects the restraints of the covenant.

Religious Nationalism and Civil Religion in American Life

The history of the democratic experiment in the United States can be narrated as an oscillation between these three “solutions” or, more precisely, as an ongoing competition between them waged by an ever-changing cast of politicians, parties and movements. These three solutions are, in fact, one way of defining left and right in American politics. The Democratic Party has typically embraced liberal secularism (Jefferson) or civil religion (Kennedy). The Republican Party has typically embraced civil religion (Lincoln) or religious nationalism, Bush the Lesser). Civil religion, then, is the “vital center” of the American tradition.

Insofar as the present political conjuncture involves a choice between civil religion and religious nationalism – I would like to dwell on them further and say a few words about the particular form that they have taken in the American context. Both stem from the same root: the Old Testament narrative of the Ancient Israelites. (Indeed, this is likely the central root of Western nationalism tout court, but that is another story.) However, they draw on very different parts of that narrative and yield very different results.

Simplifying greatly, one could argue that the American version of religious nationalism is governed primarily by the category of chosen-ness and derives its story-line from the Pentateuch, particularly the bloody struggles between the Jewish people and their philistine enemies. What is missing from this story are the ethical restraints imposed by the covenant. Rather than responsible and autonomous moral agents, the chosen people become the passive instruments of a jealous and angry God, who equates justice with vengeance. The covenant becomes a contract — a contract of the Sicilian variety. In short, a license to kill, with impunity and without regret. In this telling, the history of America is a story of sacred violence, waged on the frontier and in the world, by a blameless people on behalf of a divine cause. As Robert Bellah has soberly noted, chosen-ness without covenant is a signpost to hell – the hellish jungles of Viet Nam and the scorching sands of Iraq.

Indeed, in its present inception, as represented by George W. Bush, religious nationalism is, increasingly, neither. It is so denuded of Christian ethics that it barely warrants the name. The flag has not been placed alongside the cross, but above the cross, figuratively and, often enough, literally, as well. The orienting principles have been honor, might, power and expedience, not humility, forgiveness, reconciliation and constancy. Nor is it clear that this new dispensation can be accurately described as a form of nationalism any more, insofar as it is oriented not towards national defense, so much as imperial offense. Let us call this pseudo-religious nationalism.

As Jewett and Laurence have recently argued in their book, Captain America and Crusade Against Evil, pseudo-religious nationalism has also given rise to a secular mutant variety, which they dub the American monomyth. Its paradigmatic embodiment is the comic-book superhero and his television offspring. “In the modern superhero story of the American monomyth…helpless communities are redeemed by lone savior figures who are never integrated into their societies and never marry at the story’s end.” The monomyth “shows a democratic face in that the protagonist is an Everyman, yet has a pop-fascist dimension in that these unelected, law-transcending figures exercise superpowers to overcome foes.” These tales “typically express frustration with the limitations of constitutional government and with its allied ideals of reconciliation and compromise. These stories show that, when confronted with genuine evil, democratic institutions and the due process of law always fail. In the face of such a threat democracy can be saved only by someone with courage and strength enough to transcend the legal order so that the source of evil can be destroyed.” Think Dick Cheney channeling Jack Bauer. Let us call the unholy alliance of pseudo-Christian nationalism and the Captain America complex crusader nationalism.

Against this background, the outrage of the right at the prophetic denunciations of the Reverend Wright suddenly appears in a new light. Recall the words that have received the most airtime and sparked the great outrage: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes three-strike laws and wants them to sing God Bless America. No! No No! God damn America … for killing innocent people. God damn America for threatening citizens as less than humans. God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and supreme.” As many of his defenders have noted, this and other statements by Wright statements are wholly within the covenant logic. When the Chosen people violate the covenant, God will punish them. But right-wing patriotism, in its pseudo-Christian and secular variants, does not allow for this possibility. It assumes that America has been chosen once and for all, and that it has a monopoly on God’s blessings.

As E.J. Dionne Jr. notes in a recent editorial in the Washington Post, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King – one of America’s secular saints and its only black one – could be every bit as prophetic in tone as Wright’s. Consider what “King said about the Vietnam War at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1968: ‘God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war. … And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place.’ King then predicted this response from the Almighty: ‘And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.'”

This is not to imply that all conservative Christians who have allied themselves with the pseudo-Christians and Captain Americas have completely sloughed off the two-way logic of the covenant. None other than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (in)famously claimed that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were divine punishment for Roe v. Wade. However, those who still see the covenant as a two-way transaction, implying both blessings and sufferings, operate with a minimalistic and individualistic version of Christian ethics focused solely on pelvic issues and bereft of prophetic calls for social justice.

The comparison with Falwell and Robertson also reveals another important aspect of crusader nationalism: its Faustian pact with racial divisiveness. Why do conservatives not hold the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons of the world to the same standard? Clearly, there is a double standard at work here. It is acceptable for a white preacher to speak in the angry voice of a prophet; it is not acceptable for black preacher to do so. Indeed, this is now the central tactic in the campaign of personal destruction being waged against Barack Obama by the right-wing noise machine: to make him into an “angry, black man.” It’s been road-tested by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It will be part of the endless loop of the fall campaign.

Nor is this new. Crusader nationalism and racial division are really two sides of the same coin. If crusader nationalism is the bond, or one of the bonds, that holds defense conservatives and religious conservatives together, racial division is the wedge that was used to separate the “Reagan Democrats” from the New Deal coalition. The first step in the construction of the Reagan coalition was, of course, the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon, the use of carefully coded race-baiting to alienate working-class whites from the Democratic party. From Nixon’s allusions to “states rights” and “law and order” through Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Bush Sr.’s “Willie Horton” ad, this has been a staple of Republican campaigns for over three decades.

To make a new Democratic coalition, one must therefore unmake the Reagan coalition. The first step is racial reconciliation. But if racial solidarity is to be deconstructed, what will take its place? That is the question to which Obama’s speech is an answer. And his answer is civil religion.

Obama’s Gambit: Civil Religion

While crusader nationalism rests on a denuded notion of divine election, civil religion is anchored in a secularized notion of covenant. In this vision, the covenant is not a license to kill one’s enemies; it is a promise to live towards one’s principles. These are not religious principles in the strict sense. Rather, they are political principles with a transcendent orientation and strong parallels to religious principles: social justice, civic duty, human rights, and so on. Not Biblical principles, then, but principles for which one can find a Biblical warrant. The warrants are not to be found in the bloody battle-scenes of the Pentateuch, however, but in the righteous voices of the prophets and the principles of the new kingdom announced by Jesus Christ – a kingdom that is not of this world but that is always at hand.

As defined by Bellah in his seminal essay on the subject, civil religion is civil in a dual sense. First, it is civic rather than universal. It is a religion of a bounded, earthly community, not an encompassing, divine community. Second, it involves civility, that is, strong norms of tolerance and restraint and thoroughgoing acceptance of pluralism.

We are now in a better position to understand the political gambit contained in Obama’s speech. Insofar as the Republican coalition relies on racial antagonism, unmaking it requires racial reconciliation. But that is only a first step. The second step is to reconfigure the party landscape around class to establish an alliance between the economically underprivileged and the culturally privileged, between those bereft of economic capital (black and white), and those rich in cultural capital (the “latte liberals”). Of course, the language of class is verboten in American public discourse. And Obama does not use it. Instead, in an Edwards moment, Obama argues that “the real culprits of the middle class squeeze ” are “a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” Here, he invokes the approved language of populism, pitting ordinary people against greedy corporations and Washington lobbyists, against economic exploiters and pseudo-intellectuals.

This language has a second advantage as well. Not only does it allow him to elide the forbidden language of “class warfare”; it also allows him to invoke the language of democratic sovereignty and national identity. For “the people” is a term that plays on two registers: class and nation. In this way, demands for social justice are implicitly linked with claims to popular sovereignty and patriotism. And rejection of those demands appears as un-democratic and un-American.

As Todd Gitlin noted long ago, one of the greatest political handicaps that has limited the liberal left over the last three decades is its renunciation of the language of patriotism and national identity. In burning the American flag, both figuratively and literally, the left allowed the right to seize it up and drape it around their shoulders. I would add to this a second limitation: the full-throated embrace of liberal secularism by the intellectual allies of the Democratic party. In my view, this position is both illegitimate and misguided. Illegitimate insofar as the insistence that religious reasons be excluded from the public square is at odds with core liberal principles of freedom of conscience and expression. Misguided insofar as America remains, for better or worse, a highly religious country in the conventional sense of that term. For both those reasons, liberal secularism is not the proper rallying cry for a new, Democratic majority. Neither, of course, is religious nationalism. That leaves us with civil religion. And it is Obama’s genius to have recognized this.

Let us look at the sort of civil religion that he proposes. Beginning with his victory speech in Iowa, Obama has sought to recast and recapture the language of patriotism and national identity by offering a vision of America as a nation of principles rather than a nation of power. In his speech on race, Obama echoed Lincoln and King in speaking of the Declaration and the Constitution as national covenants that spell out the sacred principles on which America was founded and to which it must hold true. He thereby redefined patriotism in terms of civic engagement, rather than military engagement.

These words have brought chills and tears to many of his supporters, myself included. Why? Because they – we — have been told that we are no longer real Americans, and seen America transformed into something we no longer wish to identify with: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Katrina, preemptive war, warrantless wiretapping, etc. etc.. We should listen to these emotions because they tell us something profound and important about politics, namely, that political solidarity cannot be based solely on shared interests and that political allegiances are not based solely on rational choices.

Neither, however, can it be based on diverse identities, on “celebrating diversity.” There is nothing wrong with celebrating diversity, of course. But these celebrations tend to be short. The long celebrations are celebrations of particularity. Celebrating diversity is not an effective means of building an enduring political coalition in a culturally diverse, nation such as the US. Common principles and collective rituals are necessary.

One of the great, unremarked advantages of the Republican coalition over the last three decades has been its ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Apart from a few Jewish and black neo-conservatives — the Bill Kristols and Ken Blackwells — it is overwhelmingly white and evangelical. One of the great, unremarked difficulties that has confronted the Democratic party from Jackson onwards is constructing a coalition of the excluded and the marginalized: immigrants, African-Americans, the white working classes and intellectuals. And that is Obama’s gambit: “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”

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5 Responses to “Class, nation and covenant”

  1. avatar William R Burrows says:

    Philip Gorski’s analysis and sensitivities to the sotto voce aspects of the Obama speech, message, and persona are spot on. The real question we face in this campaign is whether a message this balanced and yet unmasking the core of what masquerades as political discourse in this country can cut through the gray noise. I will admit to being one of the 67% of Americans who were convinced that Saddam had dangerous weapons and dangerous intentions. I worry that the excesses of the Bush administration in the year leading up to the war and mistaken strategies in Iraq during the first three and a half years during it have so poisoned the atmosphere that we won’t be able to debate our national responsibility as of this moment: i.e., getting out of Iraq while guaranteeing Iraqis what’s required to obtain stability — if we can … and it’s possible that we cannot. On that score, too, Senator Obama’s rhetoric is more assuring to me than Senator Clinton’s. Not only does he realize we need a deep, thorough-going reconciliation on race and class issues, he seems to realize that the nation needs to help sweep up the broken crockery and give Iraqis a fair chance to reopen the store of their national life. Both those who are latte-sipping liberals and latte-sipping conservatives need to tone down the emotional decibel level. Driving home from work yesterday, I listened to Sean Hannity’s show for a half-hour. It was absolutely terrible. Driving to work in the morning I listened to NPR, also for a half-hour. It analyzed the speech solely in political horse race terms; equally terrible. Maybe each had better moments in the hours they were on the air, but I didn’t hear them. We need much more commentary of the sort Philip Gorski has delivered.

  2. avatar Christian Sheppard says:

    Pre-saging Obama and King, the champ Joe Louis prophetically pointed out America’s covenant. Supporting the troops during World War II — in addition to volunteering, he donated his purses and drew a private’s measley monthly pay — Louis changed the official prepared text of his public statement from “We Will Win Because God Is On Our Side!” to “We Will Win Because We Are On God’s Side.” He assured reporters afterward that the edit was intentional and his words of civil religious prophecy were printed on posters and pasted up all over. (See the recent excellent documentary on HBO, “Joe Louis: America’s Hero… Betrayed”). I agree that celebrating diversity for its own sake is merely salutary, but perhaps the particular African-American experience of suffering, bondage, humiliation, disenfranchisement, segregation, disrespect, and misunderstanding allows for a privileged perspective. Perhaps history has inoculated the best African-American thinkers, artists, and leaders against nationalist triumphalism, inculcated a tragic sensibility, and cultivated a prophetic vehemence for covenant.

  3. avatar Charles T. Mathewes says:

    The discussion of civil religion wasn’t all that sotto voce. The rhetoric he used was obviously deeply theological. By naming the “original sin” of America as chattel slavery, he anchored the historical and political situation at a level of profundity that most people, white and black, feel is the only appropriate one for this crime. As for playing up the connections between union and perfection in the Constitution’s expressed desire to form a “more perfect union,” he did not shy away from the extremely ambitious–dare I say audacious?–and extremely demanding language of moral perfection. But he also acknowledged that this perfection is not available to us as what Reinhold Niebuhr would call “a simple possibility.”

    The speech ended with a beginning, not an ending–with a call to renewed effort, not a lullaby to put the nation to sleep. America is a messianic nation, a nation with profound eschatological pretensions, at least from time to time. But Obama was not indulging in self-congratulation. Rather, he urged the nation to take with ever greater seriousness the moral and, indeed, religious obligations that those pretensions put upon all citizens.

    And the theological language was not simply frosting on a wholly secular cake. Rather, theology was put to work, naming our condition and illuminating a way forward. Most interesting on this point was Obama’s diagnosis of the nation’s “racial stalemate” as a matter of escapism or avoidance–a problem, he suggested, rooted in our collective failure to engage one another, a failure both political and theological, a failure to be a people and to have hope. His criticism of Jeremiah Wright, among others, was a criticism of Wright’s partial and despairing vision, his insistence that America is “static,” that the proper response to our situation is to reinforce the patterns and expectations we have, rather than step out of them and do a new thing. Furthermore, by framing the choice as one between two stark options, Obama echoed deep biblical patterns. Most obviously, he echoed Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death…choose life.” But more than that, he drew from the language of the Hebrew prophets the idea that God is doing a “new thing,” that God is not just a marble edifice but a living God who demands something of the people now and in the future. The theological language was not being used to compliment America, but to obligate it.

    This use of “new thing,” it seems to me, is a genuine innovation in the rhetoric of “America as religious mission.” Or if it is not entirely an innovation–after all, the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States does say Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A New Order of the Ages”–it was nonetheless never used in this way (at least not by anyone else from outside Illinois). This enabled Obama to express a faith in God and a faith “in the American people” in such a way that it wasn’t idolatrous, but simply an expression of hope. And, most importantly, he called upon America to begin–to start to do something. This is a use of civil religion not rooted in apocalyptic endings, or titanic final battles between good and evil, but a struggle inside the nation, and inside each soul, between hope and fear.

    In all these ways it was easily the most significant public statement on race by a major politician and, at the same time, the most significant addition to the canon on civil religion in America in forty years.

    [Note: For those who are interested, a longer version of some of these ideas also appeared at the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly blog.]

  4. avatar Winnifed Sullivan says:

    I was delighted to see a post insisting that Obama’s speech was about religion, as well as race. As I read him, Gorski admires Obama’s speech for endorsing civil religion as the best solution to the church-state problem first created in the axial age! Civil religion, at least of the U.S. variety, on Gorski’s reading, calls the democratic polity to fidelity to a secularized version of the biblical covenant between God and his people—a covenant which produces an ethics out of the critique of the community’s actions founded in its own core commitments rather than in God’s commandments.

    In doing so, in my view, Gorski robs prophetic religion of its blood, tears and anger, and Obama’s speech of its subtlety.
    Obama is doing something more complex and more ambiguous. He is attempting a sleight of hand in which the oppositional religion of the black church is acknowledged without being espoused. Indeed perhaps he does not feel justified in claiming it for his own—given his own biography. But he honors its power, a power that cannot be reduced to ethics. A power of which Langston Hughes spoke when he describes Jesus in his poetry as “the loveliest lynchee.” Obama honors prophetic religious language while insisting that it cannot be the basis of national action. For national action, he does not offer religion, but politics.

  5. avatar Joost Van Eynde says:

    Gorksi’s argument that Obama’s speech on a “More Perfect Union” was not only about race, but—implicitly perhaps—also about class, nation, and covenant, harkens, I believe, back to the overarching discourse throughout American history about “inclusion” and “exclusion.” Race, class and covenant have always been the crayons with which the contours of the nation were, and are, drawn on the pages of past. Tolerance and inclusion have been elastic notions in American history: from the “visible saints” of the early New England settlements to the racial, ethnic, and religious smorgasbord of contemporary New York. Even categories such as race and ethnicity have not been without the painful contractions and expansions resulting from the pressures of immigration and diversity. In his book, How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev argues that inclusion into the category of whiteness by 19th century Irish immigrants was only possible by excluding African Americans from the same rights they sought to secure for themselves. The boundaries of “Americanness” have tested and strained the resilience of the covenant, a covenant Robert Bellah claims was broken the very instant it was created. Broken is perhaps too much, never fully realized.

    Obama’a call to renew that covenant has been drenched in civil religious language and myth, and he has renounced the exclusionary and extolling language of what Gorski calls “crusader nationalism.” Obama has successfully reintroduced the themes of the covenant, the prophetic, and the kingdom of God into the national conversation about inclusion and into the international conversation about a global community. Dialogue has already replaced diatribe. Multilateralism has replaced unilateralism. As Gorski points out, principle has replaced power. Obama’s patriotism stems from a conception of the nation that is rooted in shared memories, but more importantly in shared visions for the future. Though America’s past is mired in ambiguity and abrogation, the future depends—and Obama realizes this all too well—on a collective effort to imagine beyond “our narrow dreams.” Nation has at times been the site of great contention, and nationalism has all but too often produced violence. Whereas the nation for a long time seemed only a figment of the imagination of a powerful few, it now seems to be in a position to once again become the realized dream of an empowered multitude. It is this message of optimism and this vision of hope that President Obama has successfully conveyed in his speeches and his first acts as president.

    The war in Iraq, the economic crisis at home and in the world, the impending ecological disaster have presented President Obama with an opportunity to bring the language of class (and all of America seems to find itself in the middle class), nation, and—I would add—globalized community back into the limelight. His acceptance speech bristled with fervor and civil religiosity, and echoed the renewal of the American promise—a promise that cannot be separated from the covenant. “At this moment, in this election,” Obama concludes his speech, “we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.” If civil religion is understood as a faithful devotion to higher ideals, both secular and religious, then it can very well become an unstoppable force for change and renewal—as Obama seems to have understood. The success and failure of civil religion depends wholly and unconditionally on the power of the covenant, both as a religious contract to those higher ideals and a social contract between human beings, who increasingly recognize that the perils of society and, indeed, this world require a joint effort. The prospects for a global civil religion in this volatile world gain a sense of clarity and urgency, but not necessarily feasibility—unfortunately perhaps.

    It is here, in this context of interdependence and globalization, that I return to the issue of the nation and covenant, and perhaps in a way also class. The survival of the nation, ironically, depends on the acceptance of its vulnerability. Judith Butler in The Precarious Life makes that very point in relation to the subjectivity. “To foreclose … vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate the most important resource from which we must take our bearings and find our way.” The events of 9/11 were not, as self-proclaimed hellfire prophets Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberston spewed, punishment for modernity and secularization, but they were an atrocious and sobering reminder of America’s vulnerability. Butler argues that if we, as individuals, as Americans, as human beings find it within ourselves to embrace that vulnerability, we will have made a covenant that cannot be broken. It is a moment in which the “chosenness” of one people is distributed to all by the mere fact of the human condition. The categories of race, class, and nation remain unfortunately necessary evils we have not yet been able to dispel. And neither has American politics. Obama, in speaking the language of inclusion rather than exclusion, is attempting to transcend these categories, perhaps hoping that the rest of the world will do so as well. Is this then the transcendent character of civil religion—our unwavering quest, aspiration or hope perhaps, to be something beyond what we have been? Is that perhaps what he intends for America? I believe it is.

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