Book Review: American Covenant by Philip Gorski

Review by Eric R. Lybeck

Philip S. Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Yale University, where he directs the MacMillan Initiative on Religion, Politics and Society and the Templeton funded, ‘Beyond Positivism’ project. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

American Covenant is a prodigious book by a prodigal son. Having spent recent decades carving works of solid masonry into the edifice of Early Modern European historical and political sociology, American sociologist of religion, Philip Gorski returns to revisit the ideas of his mentor from graduate school days at the University of California-Berkeley: Robert Bellah. Gorski finds in Bellah’s elaboration of his well-known concept of ‘civil religion’ that we could identify, not only a latent ethic running through the spine of American political life, but perhaps a useable ethical position from which we can both criticise and, perhaps, in time, transcend the failures of modern liberalism.

To see how this is achieved – quietly and politely, in contrast to the stridency of much contemporary discourse – we must see how the book is both about religion and not about religion. That is, religion and politics in many ways concern the same core societal questions: how do we organise and live together with one another? How do our visions, ideals and practices intersect? How do our political leaders reflect, channel or disrupt our conceptions of the spiritually good?

The central narrative proceeds as follows: whereas many folks in America claiming the mantle of ‘Christianity’ argue that the nation was founded as a religious, or even theocratic state; others argue that the opposite was the case: that America was destined to be wholly and absolutely secular. Gorski demonstrates that neither of these two positions are true. This claim can be demonstrated with reference to the Founding Fathers themselves, but more importantly, can be evidenced by tracing the long tradition of civil religion which runs from colonial Massachusetts through the Civil War, the civil rights era and up to the Obama presidency. (I am unsure whether the words ‘Trump’ and ‘civil’ will ever obtain correspondence!)

Following and expanding on Bellah’s original formulation, American civil religion consists of two core elements: ‘civic republicanism’ and ‘covenantal religion’. However, to distinguish the latter from the chauvinistic ‘religious nationalism’ noted above, Gorski clarifies a tradition of ‘prophetic religion’, ultimately rooted in the Exodus story. American civil religion thus combines Classical republicanism with Biblical ideals of the ethical covenant between God and the community. ‘City on a Hill’ and all that jazz. Beginning with the foundation of the New World, Americans have considered themselves to be uniquely participant in a moral and just republic of equal citizens. The American story unfolds as the tensions between inclusion and exclusion in that community transforms the covenant itself.

According to Gorski, traditions are dynamic, not static and consist of four elements: canon, archive, pantheon and narrative. Keeping each in view across a long-range of history, he very effectively replicates the strategy of intellectuals, politicians, theologians and activists by articulating a typological reading of the American story. Thus, just as John C Calhoun and Frederick Douglass interpreted the Constitution and Declaration of Independence differently as one might read precedence into the Old or New Testament; so too does Gorski track the dynamic civic republican tradition through its range of articulations. Perhaps most interestingly for the historian of social science, this includes during the Progressive Era, as exemplified by Addams, DuBois and Dewey. Evident are the Christian foundations within DuBois’ notions of ‘selfless love’, ‘living souls’, and in his reinterpretation of the American story from the vantage of the veiled position of the African-American experience: ‘the ark of testimony’ disclosing white America’s sins, recognition of which provides space to establish a ‘new covenant’ within an otherwise imperial context. Similarly, Addams realised that democracy required social recognition of the other, and that ‘in a nation of nations, the civil religion must be Janus-faced: it must bridge sacred and secular, tradition and critique. It must be anchored in tradition, but open to the present’ (119).

Indeed, both Gorski and Bellah before him, identify, rearticulate and ultimately advocate for a tradition that is too often drowned out within our increasingly fragmented culture: what Arthur Schlesinger called ‘the vital center’. In recovering the deep roots of American civic republicanism – an alternative vision between ‘left’ and ‘right’, which is not identical to liberalism – sociologists might put themselves in the position to develop and shape society through active citizenship. Following the stimulation provided by, especially Alistair MacIntyre (1981) and others, we might even envision a return to notions of civic virtue: a civic sociology.

For what is ’neoliberalism’ if not the semblance of institutionalised rights without a corresponding articulation of the common ‘good’? In our radical secular haste to reject all trappings of Christian ethics as ideological superstructure, excommunicating such discussions from the public and academic spheres, by and large, we miss that virtue is not about Puritan sexual morality or a hypocritical imperialist gloss (or needn’t be). As Gorski writes: ‘virtue connotes ethical and practical skill, a knowledge of what is worthwhile and how to attain it’ (25). In its different iterations, civic republicanism emphasized the value of oratory, persuasion and self-sacrifice for the common good. It also recognised that liberal institutions would not last long without virtuous citizens.

Enter Donald Trump. Enter Brexit. Enter the latest news that our leaders are either incompetent, malicious or both. Enter our sub-tweeting about this condition, or – if you prefer – our writing a ‘critical’ conference paper and article, but doing nothing about it.

For the real promise of Gorksi’s book is not simply the well-founded historical analysis of the American civil religion, but rather the demonstration that sociologists can engage with the world differently: from a civically-engage position, which was willing to call out views and practices which were damaging to the community, but without insisting our opponents are too evil to remain within our set boundaries of what constitutes a civilised ‘public’.

The American Covenant is therefore well worth the price of admission, not only for sociologists of religion, or for critical realists who might be most familiar with Gorksi’s project to encourage a second generation of critical realism to flourish across the Atlantic. Beyond the inspiring elements noted above, there is much room to imagine a rich debate and extension from the central theses and observations. Immediately, one can imagine an updating of Bellah and Hammond’s Varieties of Civil Religion (1980), for example, to assess whether one could identify such a thing as a British or Japanese civil religion. In the former case, this is especially intriguing within the context of recent historical scholarship into civic universities and the role of redbrick universities in late Victorian and Edwardian society (Whyte 2014). Again, the lessons for public, or civic sociology would appear self-evident.

Review by Eric R. Lybeck, Exeter University, UK.

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