Interviews:

American civil religion in the age of Obama: An interview with Philip S. Gorski

posted by Joseph Blankholm

Philip S. Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University. His work as a comparative historical sociologist has been influential in recovering Max Weber and asserting the strong influence of Calvinism on state formation in early modern Europe. In his recent book, The Protestant Ethic Revisited (Temple, 2011), he challenges Charles Tilly’s thesis that the technologies of war drove the creation of stable nation-states and argues that post-Reformation religious conflicts were the primary impetus of European state formation. In addition to co-editing The Post-Secular in Question earlier this year as part the SSRC’s series with NYU Press, Gorski is editor of another volume coming out early next year entitled Bourdieu and Historical Analysis (Duke, 2013). He and I sat down in Theodore Roosevelt Park in New York City, where we discussed the book he’s writing on civil religion, joked about Obama’s messianic burden, and considered what present-day America might learn from Émile Durkheim.

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JB: You’re working on a book on civil religion at the moment. Could you tell me a little bit about that project?

PG: Sure. It wasn’t really the book I had planned or expected to write. It was more occasioned by hearing certain things in Obama’s campaign rhetoric that reminded me of ideas about civil religion that I had picked up from Robert Bellah at graduate school. He was my adviser, so it was something that was parked in the back of my brain, and I remembered in particular his rather despairing line in The Broken Covenant where he said that American civil religion is nothing but “an empty and broken shell.” Suddenly it seemed like it was reappearing, so I wrote something about this for The Immanent Frame, and an editor from a press saw it and said, “Oh, you should write a book about this. It’s very topical.” It’s something that I was really quite engaged by at that time, more than some of the other things I’d been thinking about working on, so I started digging more deeply into it. The starting point was really Bellah’s argument that he develops in the Daedalus article from ’67 and then the Broken Covenant book. In reading some of the reactions to his argument, I pretty quickly saw that a lot of people fundamentally misunderstood—or maybe also intentionally misunderstood—what he was up to and accused him of being a proponent of some kind of political idolatry, or national self-worship. I knew this wasn’t at all what he intended, but it made it quite clear to me that one had to draw some sort of a conceptual distinction between what he wanted to call civil religion and then something else, which I decided was best called religious nationalism. Eventually, I started to conceptualize civil religion as a mediating tradition in between two other alternative traditions within American political culture, the third being some form of radical secularism. The easiest way to conceptualize it is to imagine religion and politics as separate fields or arenas, and there’s an ongoing argument about what the proper relationship between them should be. It re-erupted most recently in reactions against Rick Santorum’s remarks about the JFK speech. You can imagine three basic modalities: these spheres are completely separate, they’re completely fused, or somewhere in between. There’s some sort of overlap or tension between them. So that’s the sort of underlying thought for these three different traditions: civil religion, radical secularism, and religious nationalism. But of course that’s a very formal way of thinking about it. One has to think about this more substantively, as well. I guess what I realized when thinking about religious nationalism is that it draws on a very different set of texts. So it draws in particular on the kind of blood sacrifice and apocalyptic tropes within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures; it draws on tales of conquest in the Pentateuch or Kings; it draws on the apocalyptic prophecies in Daniel and the book of Revelation. Civil religion, by contrast, draws much more on the prophetic tradition: the Hebrew prophets proper, and one can certainly put Jesus in that same group in certain ways—you can see him as part of that prophetic tradition. The other difference is that civil religion also draws on a non-theistic tradition, which is civil republicanism—something that had been rediscovered in American political culture during the 60s when Bellah was writing the civil religion book, and it finds its way into his argument. So in essence, I agree with Bellah about what the two central threads of the civil religious tradition are: there’s a prophetic tradition within the Bible and civic republicanism as it grows out of the American Revolution. Where I diverge from him is in trying to be much clearer that this is not the only tradition, but that we need to think about there being at least three competing and sometimes opposing traditions for thinking about the proper relationship of religion and politics in the United States.

JB: And what can this tell us about civil religion in American today?

PG: The contemporary relevance of this is fairly clear. Our current politics is in many ways defined by the people on the edges, by radical secularists on the Left and religious nationalists on the Right. Not to say that this is all that’s going on in American politics, but if you take this religious slice of it, I think that’s a lot of it, with the culture wars and so on. The two feed off one another to a certain degree. The radical secularists become a stand-in for anybody who’s on the Left and anybody who’s not the religious nationalists, and the radical religious nationalists become a stand-in for everybody who’s religious. When people look at religious people from the Left, you get this kind of undifferentiated and polarizing picture, so there is this rather unfortunate synergy between the two positions. That’s the political thrust of the project, to say that there is this other mediating tradition. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody’s just going to get along, but at least there is a tradition that might actually bring people together again into more of a common argument. I think one of the big discoveries of this that’s also most relevant to the present is the way in which the conservative movement in the last few years has completely written equality out of the American political tradition. It’s actually quite foundational. I think the tension between liberty and equality is one of the defining tensions of the American political tradition, and people disagreed about how to define equality. Certainly political conservatives tended to define it more narrowly. They had a very narrow understanding of equality and opportunity, but they didn’t pretend that it was unimportant. Now if you listen to the rhetoric of many political conservatives, all they talk about is liberty: liberty, liberty, liberty. It’s quite amazing to think how much of an impact that a once-fringe group of libertarians has had on the conservative movement. This also involves a very particular reading of the founding documents, for example. It’s not coincidental that they constantly cite the Constitution and not the Preamble to the Constitution, and surely not the Preamble to the Declaration, which is where the values of national solidarity, “We the people,” and equality, “Created equal,” are to be found. These are the governing principles of the American tradition; the Preambles express the higher aspirations. There’s this kind of originalist, literalist reading of these documents, which of course resonates with a certain kind of scriptural hermeneutic for a lot of these people, too. This is also of course the way that they read the Bible. Part of the more immediate political message of the book will be to reclaim and to reassert equality as one of the central values of the American republic.

JB: In Montreal in 2009, I had the good fortune to go to the AAR [American Academy of Religion] panel that you were on with David Kim, David Morgan, and Ebrahim Moosa. Among you and the other panelists, there was optimistic talk about Obama’s role in civil religion, but the tone was tentative. I’m wondering now if you think Obama’s been able to establish a new rhetoric of this kind of civil religion that you’re talking about.

PG: Definitely not. I, like a lot of people, have seen some of my higher hopes disappointed. I think that’s just what happens in politics, and it’s a good reason not to invest all of your hopes and all of your energies in politics. There is a sort of curious way in which I think some of the jibes from the Right were correct about the almost messianic fervor around Obama at the time. I was talking with a conservative colleague a couple of weeks ago, and he told this very funny joke: “I hear the Obama team is actually in Jerusalem. Oh, really; what are they doing? Oh, they’re visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. What is it that they’re doing there? Well, they’re actually trying to get a burial plot for Obama. You’re kidding. They actually want to have him buried there, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Yeah, that’s what they’d like. Is this going to work out? Well, they had to do a lot of hard negotiating, but in the end, they worked it out. Well, what were the terms? It’ll cost a billion dollars. They reported this back to the President, and he wasn’t entirely on board. He said, ‘A billion dollars? Just for two nights?’”

JB: [Laughs]

PG: It’s true that I think there were some messianic hopes invested in Obama, and a lot of folks, including myself, were swept up in that. But on the other hand, I think without that kind of over-reach in our aspirations, you never get anywhere. I’m not as critical of his administration as a lot of people are. I think he basically hasn’t done much that I wouldn’t have expected him to do. There are certainly some disappointments. Guantanamo was certainly a big one. But a lot of this just turned out to be much harder than he realized, or than any of us thought. Within the constraints of American politics and the world we live in, I think he’s done a reasonably good job. In terms of the civil religious tradition, I think part of the problem there that I’ve come to realize is that the prophet is actually somebody who’s supposed to stand outside of politics. The prophet’s not supposed to, him or herself, be somebody who’s an actual political actor. This has always created a performative contradiction for American presidents, in enacting the discourse of civil religion. The way that it’s usually been handled consciously or unconsciously is by creating a fairly sharp divide between certain occasions: campaign speeches and the high ritual of events like the State of the Union and the Inaugural Address, where they speak much more in poetry. But you can’t talk like that all the time and govern, I don’t think. So it’s actually quite difficult to manage that from a purely performative standpoint. I guess the bigger question it raises is, “Why do there seem to be fewer voices,” or, “Why are the voices that are out there that do speak in this kind of prophetic tradition not being heard?” The carrier of that tradition for the last hundred years has been the Black Church. I’m no expert on this. I just throw this out there. There are people like Cornel West, for example, who continue to try to keep this alive, but are there younger voices that we don’t know about? Are they just not getting heard? America’s becoming a more complicated place, a more pluralistic place. Clearly there would have to be voices. You can’t expect this aging generation of Civil Rights leaders to do the heavy lifting forever.

JB: This leads to an interesting question: who’s going to take up the mantle of theology? In your essay in The Post-Secular in Question, you ask, “What’s the role of sociology?” Your answer is that it could be a moral science that recovers the idea of “the good.” What would that moral sociology look like? Is there a relationship that you see between the creation of a civil religion and the creation of a sociology that’s more concerned with the good?

PG: That would certainly be a hope of mine, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, whether there’s a limited kind of moral realism that we could defend, and that we might actually be able to contribute to through social science or at least through academic reflection of some kind or another? My suspicion is that there is; I just don’t know what the scope of it is. It would have to be premised on some understanding of human flourishing—that human beings are put together biologically, neurologically, in a certain way—that they have certain kinds of capacities or propensities—that their flourishing and well-being in general involves the development and cultivation of these propensities and capacities. Of course I’m simply channeling a lot of research that’s being done in neighboring fields. There’s recent work in positive psychology, for example, which is starting to get a great deal of attention by people like Jonathan Haidt and Marty Seligman. There’s a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics tradition that people like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Kraut have revived and defended in recent years. Even some folks like Amartya Sen have tried to make a basis for a different way of thinking about economics and development policy. So the question is, “How do you develop a theory of the human good which doesn’t become a kind of hardened dogma, a sort of a one-size-fits-all understanding of what a life well-lived is going to mean?” We don’t live in Athens anymore. We live in a much more diverse, much more egalitarian, much freer society. Clearly there has to be a great deal of room for people to act freely. Part of flourishing is also making mistakes and learning and developing, so it’s not the idea that you simply prescribe some kind of a lifestyle. I think this notion that Nussbaum has developed, a kind of capacities approach to justice—that you need to create a basic set of preconditions for people to explore their own particular talents, capacities, inclinations—that that probably strikes the right balance between liberalism and a more robust form of moral realism. I think where sociology might contribute to this is in thinking harder about how you create the preconditions for the sorts of social connections and communities that are clearly part of human flourishing. We know that this is one of the clear results of recent work in positive psychology: that relationships to other people are critical. There’s a lot of confirmation for this in evolutionary biology and psychology, the mounting evidence of pro-social characteristics of human beings. But most of these disciplines are really focused on the human organism, or they’re focused on the human psyche. They don’t really think deeply about the social, per se, so this is where sociology might actually step in and make some kind of a contribution to this, I think. But I expect there’ll be a lot of resistance. One of the first things that you learn in graduate school in the social sciences is about the fact/value distinction, that there is no way of knowing or discovering what’s good. I don’t think people really believe that. I think that’s why most people go to graduate school, because they think this will help them answer these kinds of questions. But you get professionalized and socialized out of this during your first few years in graduate school. It’s salutary to the degree that we learn to establish a certain kind of reflexive distance to our tacit assumptions about what’s good, but I think the next step is to return to those basic practical questions that really animate people and get them interested in academic life and scholarship in the first place.

JB: That’s really interesting. So in some ways it’s breaking down the limits of what an objective science can discuss. It makes me think of the ways in which sociology and economics can articulate with people who do governance. I can’t help but think about this sociology of the good as theology for technocrats, or something like that.

PG: [Laughs] Right.

JB: Do you think there’s any way to push an agenda through sociology that could speak to something much broader, or are we very insular in the way we work with disciplines, in the way that, in a Weberian sense, we compartmentalize our society, secularize it?

PG: I guess I would say two things. First, I think one of the theological virtues that any technocrat would have to learn first is some measure of humility. [Laughs] Yeah, I think perhaps one of the most important things is to make room for people who do work that’s more publicly engaged. Again, there’s a lot of resistance to this, sometimes motivated by resentment of people who get attention from the wider public or have some kind of non-academic success. It’s not to say that you can go to the other extreme. I don’t think that everybody in the academy should suddenly become some kind of activist or public intellectual. There has to be some sort of balance struck between the autonomy of the scientific community and its engagement with the public, which is probably difficult to maintain. It certainly seems to me that this is a moment where there is a lot of academic capital or knowledge that’s been stored up within the research university, which just gets ignored, gets drowned out. Nobody pays any attention to it. This is partly an institution-building question, too, of course. It’s not just a matter of a particular individual deciding, “I’m going to speak to the broader public.” Well that’s not going to get you heard. You have to figure out ways to reach a broader public, and that’s a huge problem in and of itself, obviously. Non-academic intellectuals have figured this out.

JB: I wonder if we can talk about Émile Durkheim a little bit. In that same essay on recovering the good for sociology, you talk about Aristotle’s influence on Durkheim. If Durkheim is this figure at the birth of sociology, and he’s able to influence government and morality and science in the Third Republic, is there anything in Durkheim that we should be thinking about now, that we can use to create a sociology that’s more concerned with the good, or eudemonia? What can we take from Durkheim?

PG: That’s a very good question. Certainly one thing that I would say, which is an obvious point to make about Durkheim and civic life, is the importance of different forms of collective ritual. That’s something of which there’s actually very little in the United States. To some degree, I think this is just a long-term influence of a culture shaped by dissenting Protestantism, which is very leery of ritual and representation of any kind, which has an iconoclastic MO. But ritual is important. Going back to civil religion and the Obama campaign, that was part of what generated the excitement. We all know about the big crowds that turned out, the rallies, and the stadium events. For a lot of people, that was one of the first times that they had really experienced a kind of classic collective effervescence, in Durkheim’s terms, in a political arena. It used to be that there were a lot more of these political rituals in US culture, and they’ve really declined over the last forty or fifty years. I know it sounds kind of hokey, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing, for example, if there were some kind of National Service Day, where as many people as possible pledged to volunteer a day of their time to do something for the community. Or if there were more opportunities for young people, for example, to do something like Americorps, that there were forms of involvement in service that weren’t just military service, which kind of defines what we talk about. “Have you served your country?” That tacitly means, “Have you been in the military?” That’s fine; it’s one way of serving your country. But I worry sometimes that it’s kind of the only one.

JB: You framed your concern about the lack of collective ritual within the past forty or fifty years, and I think collective effervescence is a very nice way to put it. But even in some of the critiques of Bellah’s civil religion, there’s a fear about interwar and WWII Germany. How do you avoid the idolatry of nationalism, and how do you find a civil religion that’s not idolatrous?

PG: The civil religion that’s not idolatrous is one that’s prophetic in the sense that it sees the American project as defined by a set of ideals, as opposed to being defined by a set of accomplishments. So if you imagine America as this great nation which has achieved all of these things, and you list all of the things that it’s achieved, in a way you’re already a little bit on the slippery slope toward idolatry. That always has to be held in balance with a recognition of how often and how much the US falls short of its central ideals that are part of the project. The United States, because it’s a nation of immigrants and because it’s so deeply pluralistic, can’t be defined in terms of some shared background culture or in terms of some kind of ethno-national descent. It’s not Sweden, where they can disagree, but at the end of the day, they’re still Swedes. The only way in which you can really have any kind of coherence to an American project is to have it based around some set of ideals. But one has to always be somewhat critical. I think the real danger sign that you’re slipping toward some form of potentially dangerous state idolatry is when you start to hear too much about blood and blood sacrifice. This is a very dangerous kind of rhetoric, which one hears inevitably in times of war and conflict. It tends to redefine national belonging in the United States around race, around lineage, clearly to exclude more recent immigrant groups. That, I think, is the danger, where an attempt at a civil theology can degenerate into some kind of state idolatry.

JB: With the time we have left, maybe I can ask you about your experiences writing for The Immanent Frame. When you answered my first question, you talked about how that’s been productive, and I wonder if you can reflect on that a little bit.

PG: I would have to give a shameless plug for The Immanent Frame. I’ve posted on it three times, and two times it’s led to major publication invitations. It’s very clear to me that The Immanent Frame does fulfill a little bit this function we were talking about earlier, interfacing to some degree between a broader public and the scholarly community. I realize it’s not people all over America waking up, and the first thing they do is click on The Immanent Frame, but clearly there are folks in the world of journalism and publishing and public policy who tune in occasionally and look at what’s going on. So it does perform a really great function. I think it’s been great. It’s been highly successful. I am one of these guys who reads it almost every day, just to sort of see what’s new. It’s endlessly interesting.

JB: Have you ever assigned any articles from The Immanent Frame to students, or has it ended up on a syllabus yet? Or is that domain still for peer-reviewed articles?

PG: That’s an interesting suggestion. The answer is, no, I haven’t done that, but I probably should think about doing that. I do mention it to people, graduate students and undergraduate students who have a broad set of interests in religion and politics that The Immanent Frame tends to talk about. And I do know graduate students who read it, too. That’s a good idea because a lot of these things would be very good vehicles for discussion in an undergraduate seminar or lecture class. I’ll take that under advisement.

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2 Responses to “American civil religion in the age of Obama: An interview with Philip S. Gorski”

  1. avatar Patrick Ley says:

    So in this piece the space of religion in the public sphere is restricted to two visions. One “religious nationalism” that is rooted in a very particular reading of Apocalyptic texts (one which begins with forgetting the etymology of the word apocalypse), and another which focuses on a broadly traditional understanding of the Hebrew prophetic literature, and possibly the (synoptic?) Gospels that is called “civil religion.” Outside these two options is a secularism that we are told is definitionally “radical.”

    So I take it that with the possible exception of the Jewish population there is no room for America’s religious minorities to be voices within the civil religion? America is a nation with citizens, even those who are “natural born” citizens who are Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist. Who have been raised in these traditions rather than raised under the paradigm that one must be Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. America is a vital ground for New Religious Movements like the many forms of Neopaganism. So too are there religious movements that come from the people who were displaced to make room for this country, or abducted and enslaved to build it. America is a land of many peoples, but not all of them were willing immigrants. Is it truly “radical” to envision a country where people who belong to these many traditions, or who are not religious. Not an oppressive regime where a mention of God earns censure, but where candidates for President don’t feel compelled to proclaim their commitment to Christianity as part of their campaigns for office. Where the civic ritual of the Inauguration doesn’t require public Christian prayer, and the use of a Bible for the oath of office? Where are coinage does not proclaim our trust in a deity that a growing portion of Americans no longer believe exists. Is that such an awful restrictive vision? It doesn’t deny the value of having Inaugurations, or monuments, or parades in honor of the nation and the ideals we would like it to represent. It does remember that while the Pledge of Allegiance was composed in 1892, God was not made a part of it until 1954.

    The article says that we are no longer in Athens, and that is true. But let us not forget that the crime the early Christians were persecuted for in Rome was not participating in foreign religions, but refusing to participate in the mandatory civic cult. I do not suggest that Professor Gorski thinks we should feed people who don’t care for civil religion to the lions, but isn’t creating a civic life that is innately foreign to those that are not part of majority religious traditions already wrong even before legal penalties are attached?

  2. avatar Joanna Howe says:

    Gorski’s differentiation between what he calls the “radical secularists” and the “religious nationalists” seems to produce an inaccurate image of the left as a polarized plane. Characterizing radical secularists as, in essence, anyone who is left-leaning refuses the acknowledgement of many conservative and non-religious individuals. It appears that the creation of this sort of a dichotomy ignores a large portion of individuals, who, as Gorski seems to hint at, would be an important market of support for his claims concerning the need for moral realism. Similarly, it struck me as interesting that, while Gorski points out the relentless inclusion of liberty by modern libertarians and conservatives, he himself is constantly forming his argument on the basis of commonly held egalitarian principles such as the lack of a “one-size-fits-all” understanding of what a life well-lived means and the creation of a “freer society.”

    Upon reading Gorski’s revisions of these statements, as well as his inclusion of libertarian undercurrents throughout his article, it seems that he is in the process of delving into a much needed and influential reconciliation between logic-based secular morality and the social resolves that drive organized religion. His endorsement of the concept of moral realism that differentiates naturally from scripturally based ethical guidelines is directly compatible with what I believe to be a necessary and imperative discovery given contemporary social transformations. There must be a resolution between the countless endeavors for goodness found among many individuals who adhere to a major religion as well as the works of experts in the many fields that Gorski points out; this sort of compromise would produce a truly revolutionary and expansive set of organizing principles that simultaneously allow for an egalitarian based sense of liberty while promoting a generally agreeable sense of moral goodness.

    It appears that a project such as this must be extremely careful in its admonishment of idolatry of principles. In order to truly create a sort of civil religion, longstanding principles must be engaged with in a critical and comprehensive way. This idea is evident as Gorski touches upon the need to see the American project as defined by a set of ideals as opposed to a set of accomplishments. I think such a transformation would acknowledge the long held veneration of the American political system– one that reduces the ability of meaningful doctrinal change.

    Furthermore, although I agree with Gorski’s assertion that there is a lack of focus upon the social, I do not think there would be as much resistance as he makes out to be. As an undergraduate, I find that many students from both my own university and other peer institutions seem to be searching for the discovery that Gorski and his colleagues seem to wish to make.

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