Reconsidering civil religion:

A Neo-Weberian theory of American civil religion

posted by Philip S. Gorski

I am currently writing a book on American civil religion. The book addresses two questions, one empirical and one normative: Does America have a civil religion? And if so, should America have a civil religion? As you might expect, my answer to both questions is affirmative. Otherwise, what would be the point of writing the book!?

But what is ‘civil religion’? In Anglophone social science, the notion of civil religion is associated with the work of Robert Bellah. Bellah defined it as a set of rituals, symbols and beliefs that were institutionally separate, but partly derived, nevertheless, from organized religion. The American civil religion, he argued, was derived from two sources, one religious and the other secular: namely, the covenant theology of the Puritans and the classical republicanism of the Founders. Writing amidst the collective funk of the mid-1970s, Bellah famously concluded that the American civil religion was an empty and broken shell.

Though I agree with Bellah about the sources of this tradition, I disagree with his assessment of its vitality. Nor do I believe that civil religion is the only version of the American tradition. I argue that there were at least two others. To wit: religious nationalism and radical secularism. All three envision the proper relationship between religion and politics somewhat differently. For the religious nationalist, America is a “Christian nation” or, perhaps, a “Judeo-Christian nation.” In this vision, religious and political communities should be coterminous. For the radical secularist, America is a liberal society comprised of autonomous individuals. In this vision, religious and political communities ought to be completely distinct. For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism. In this vision, the religious and political communities inevitably overlap with one another.

Using Max Weber’s notion of “value spheres,” we can put this somewhat more formally: liberal secularists believe that the religious and political spheres should be radically separated; religious nationalists believe that they should be tightly integrated; and civil religionists believe that they should be overlapping but independent.

Let me say a bit more about the content and evolution of each tradition. The governing metaphor of religious nationalism in the United States is blood: blood as in blood sacrifice on the battlefield, and blood as in the blood purity of the nation. The deep roots of this tradition are to be found in the bloody wars and priestly sacrifices portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. Its more immediate roots lie in the armed conflicts between Native Americans and New Englanders. It first reaches full flower, however, in the Civil War. It is still very much alive today, primarily, but not exclusively, in the radical “base” of the GOP. The governing metaphor of liberal secularism is autonomy: autonomy as in individual choice and institutional separation. The deep roots of this tradition are to be found in the atomistic and anti-religious creed of the Epicureans. Faint echoes of it can be found in, say, the writings of Thomas Jefferson. But it does not reach full flower until the emergence of neo-Darwinianism and secular progressivism in the late 19th century. Its most complete—and virulent—expressions today are Randian libertarianism on the right and soft-Nietzschean post-modernism on the left. The governing metaphor of civil religion, finally, is covenant: covenant as in collective commitment to a set of sacred principles and collective responsibility for their realization. The deep roots of this tradition are to be found in the Biblical covenants between the Ancient Israelites and their God. Its more immediate roots can be traced to the New England Puritans, for whom the sacred covenant was a general template of institution building. The covenanting tradition was spliced together with classical republicanism during the American Revolution, and it was periodically revivified during periods of national crisis, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement to the Culture Wars of the present day. The leading public theologian of American Civil Religion in the contemporary United States is of course Barack Hussein Obama. In sum, civil religion and its rivals are all visions of how the religious and the political should be related in American life, embedded in unfolding narratives about how they have been related at different junctures in American history, each with its theologians, its saints and martyrs, its sacred places and high holy days.

So, America does have a civil religion. Should it have one? And, if so, what form can it legitimately take? My answer to this question begins from the following premise: one of the fundamental challenges confronting all modern democracies, perhaps particularly the United States, is achieving and maintaining the appropriate balance between pluralism and solidarity. Excessive pluralism, whether of an individualistic or a sectarian variety, impedes the level of social cooperation that is necessary to the achievement of the common good and individual flourishing (libertarian opposition to health-care reform is merely the most topical example). Conversely, excessive solidarity, whether of a racial or national variety, squelches the cultural pluralism and individual autonomy that are the wellsprings of societal adaptation and creativity. If we accept this premise, then we must reject radical secularism and religious nationalism, at least in their extreme forms. The one leads to excessive pluralism; the other to excessive solidarity.

Now, there are plenty of people who would agree about the need to balance pluralism and solidarity, but who would disagree that civil religion is a necessary means to this end. First, there are non-theistic neo-Kantian rationalists—such as Rawls, Habermas, and Audi—who would be somewhat uneasy about the religious dimension of civil religion. Then, there are theistic neo-Aristotelian confessionalists—such as MacIntyre, Yoder, and Hauerwas—who would be somewhat uneasy about the civil dimension of civil religion. But each critique supplies an answer to the other. For example, the rationalists often assert that certain abstract principles and formal procedures, such as “communicative rationality” or “public reason,” are sufficient means to the ethical aims of a civic republic such as the United States. But they are also compelled to admit that civic virtue and civic friendship are necessary as well.

Virtue and friendship, however, cannot be founded on abstract principles or formal procedures. Rather, as the neo-Aristotelians have repeatedly and rightly insisted, they can only be sustained within narrative communities. But the neo-Aristotelians are also neo-confessionalists who worry that civic engagement undermines religious community. In Hauerwas’s phrase, the job of the church is to be the church. A politically engaged church, he implies, cannot be a narratively authentic church because it must compromise its first principles for the sake of political expediency. The fatal flaw in this position is the assumption that an agreement on principles of political justice can only be founded on an agreement on foundational principles of justice. This is not the case. As John Rawls has recently shown, and as Jacques Maritain showed long before him, divergence of first principles of justice does not preclude convergence on political principles of justice, such as human rights or social solidarity. The same might be said about civic narratives. One can embrace the American creed for different reasons, both secular and sacred: natural law, Kantian ethics, covenant theology, neo-Romanism, and so on.

A year-and-a-half ago, in the midst of the media maelstrom over Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama provided a powerful re-articulation of the American civic narrative. He is a much better writer than I, so I will close with a few words from his “more perfect union” speech:

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy […]. The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery […]. Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution […] a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time […]. And yet words on a parchment would not be enough […]. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part […] to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

Just words, of course. But words, as Aristotle reminds us, are what make the civic community possible.

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2 Responses to “A Neo-Weberian theory of American civil religion”

  1. avatar Thaddeus Kozinski says:

    Mr. Gorski writes:

    The fatal flaw in this position is the assumption that an agreement on principles of political justice can only be founded on an agreement on foundational principles of justice. This is not the case. As John Rawls has recently shown, and as Jacques Maritain showed long before him, divergence of first principles of justice does not preclude convergence on political principles of justice, such as human rights or social solidarity. The same might be said about civic narratives. One can embrace the American creed for different reasons, both secular and sacred: natural law, Kantian ethics, covenant theology, neo-Romanism, and so on.

    Neither Rawls nor Maritain has “shown” that this kind of divergence/convergence is possible. See my article on the subject.

  2. avatar Molly Davidson says:

    This article presents an interesting way to view American nationalism as almost a religion on its own. In this conception, being a citizen is like being an adherent to an “American religion” which provides all of the trappings of a traditional religion. Gorski explains that it has a doctrine in the Constitution, a moral framework in the legal system, and special state holidays. While Gorski states that this secular civic religion helps America achieve a balance between pluralism and solidarity, what exactly does it say for religion in America? Clearly adhering to a civic religion allows Americans of diverse backgrounds and ideas to agree on at least some common ground. However, what happens to those who’s religions govern doctrine, moral guidelines, and everyday life? Must they reform their beliefs in order to accommodate civic religion?

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