Philip Gorski is a professor of sociology at Yale University, where he is the co-director of the Center for Comparative Research and the Religion and Politics Colloquium at the Yale MacMillan Center. In his most recent book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (2017), Gorski reflects on the role of civic virtue, citizenship and friendship in American history and culture. He recently spoke with me in Madison, Wisconsin. —Robert L. Kehoe III
Robert L. Kehoe III: In American Covenant, you describe what you call a “dynamic tradition” that is embedded in the American project. What is that project and tradition?
Philip Gorski: The way I would put it is that it’s a project to make a democratic nation of nations, and to make a democratic people of peoples. This is a really bold project when seen in the larger sweep of history and it’s often been thought by theorists of democracy that it’s only possible with an extremely homogeneous people, and an extremely small territory. So the American project is not only a bold experiment, it’s an ongoing experiment. For me, the dynamic tradition recognizes a vitality in our connection to founding values and documents, while also recognizing that we don’t fully understand the meaning of those values and documents at any given moment in time. So, for example, if we assume that we always already knew what words like “democracy” or “equality” meant—well, clearly we didn’t when they were only available to white property-holding men. The same can be said of words like “freedom”: if something like “religious freedom” is only applied to white Protestants, or to people of faith, but not to people of no faith.
For a tradition to be dynamic, the truth is not fully known to us at the beginning but discloses itself through our collective experience. Through our shared historical experience, we come to better understand the tradition’s implications.