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.
RK: Can you elaborate on the criteria you’ve established to identify this dynamism, especially when a word like “tradition” can be viewed very negatively these days by some groups?
PG: I don’t know that there’s any hard and fast rule. But we always have to be prepared for the possibility that we can depart from our tradition, or that we could corrupt our tradition. You can see both of those dangers, especially in a certain kind of secular progressive who would really just like to sever the thread of tradition, start over, rewrite the constitution, forget about everything that’s happened in the past because it’s all bad: after all, we’re modern and we’re beyond all that. Then there’s a tendency in a certain kind of religious or political conservative who wants to hold fast to a very particular, “original” understanding of tradition, as if it’s completely clear what the Constitution meant, or what the Bible meant. Which it often isn’t; those aren’t self-interpreting documents whose meaning is plain to anybody of common sense.
RK: One of the gifts I found in your book was a view of American history that gave an account of active pre-colonial debates where some were, in fact, arguing for a kind of partnership with native peoples, which would include settlers appropriating the language, or learning particular farming practices, not the other way around. This is not a part of the story you hear very often these days. Can you share other examples like this?
PG: Well, the example of the Puritans you’re referencing is a good one. Of course, the Puritans have been in a bad odor, at least ever since H. L. Mencken. I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with them. A friend of mine describes them as America’s first “very serious people,” which pokes fun at them while being appreciative of what we should appreciate. There is a certain form of moral seriousness about them that can be easily mythologized. But we can forget what an incredibly bold, reckless and courageous thing they did for a set of political and spiritual ideals. And I was really struck in my research for the book to discover how pluralism and maintaining some degree of hospitality with ethnic and religious others really was a recurrent theme. There were some who rose to this challenge amongst the Puritans and there were some who didn’t. Those who didn’t were apt to stylize the Native Americans as demons, or somehow subhuman, or nonhuman, and to imagine that their clash with them was some cosmic clash between good and evil, as opposed to recognizing that the line of good and evil isn’t between people but runs through people. This of course is a recurring theme in our history, which is why I think it’s important to maintain a sense of sinfulness and brokenness—the only foundation of true humility.
RK: This speaks to a distinction you set up in the book between the dynamic tradition and the idolatrous tradition. I’m wondering if you can unpack that, especially at a time when it can seem like we’re often in danger of tipping toward idolatry.
PG: An interesting example of this would be the practice of treating a physical copy of the Constitution as if it were itself a kind of sacred document. I mean, in a sense I think there is something sacred about the ideas and values that are in there. But not in the book itself; that’s where I begin to worry about idolatry. Though I think the more pernicious form of idolatry we find throughout our history, and in the present, is the substitution of the nation for God and the worship of the nation as if it were a god; along with claims that America is good and has always been a force for good in the world. I think it’s crucial that, even as we hold fast to the better parts of our tradition, we acknowledge how often we’ve fallen short of those values and that tradition.
RK: As a sociologist, what initially sparked your interest in church history and theology?
PG: I come from a Lutheran family; in fact, I think mine is the first generation since the Reformation that didn’t produce a Lutheran pastor. So the church has been extremely important to me. But when I got to graduate school, I realized it was also really under-studied. At Berkeley, there were lots of people who were studying the economic dimension of social life, or the political and cultural dimension of social life, but there weren’t very many who thought religion was all that important. It was the mid-Eighties, and maybe they should have realized this was important; there were certainly enough wake-up calls at the time. Because of my background, I guess I was more sensitive to that dimension than my fellow graduate students or teachers. Interestingly, it wasn’t what I thought I was going to do in graduate school. But it did feel like a calling; and that I could contribute something really important that was being left out. Next thing I knew I was up to my neck in the Protestant Reformation.
RK: Part of what motivated that study was a chance encounter with the art historian Simon Schama, who was teaching at Harvard when you were an undergraduate.
PG: Yeah, it was my senior year of college and Schama was teaching an art history course on the early modern period, which opened my eyes to how much religious beliefs and debates influenced art and culture during that time—particularly in the Netherlands. That was, I suppose, the first time I started thinking seriously about the Protestant Reformation.
RK: You say in the introduction to your first book, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (2003), that studying with Schama planted the seed for that project.
PG: One of the things that fascinated me was how much the concept of modern nationhood had been informed by the civic models of the ancient Israelites. This was pervasive in Dutch art during that period, and Schama spent a lot of time pointing this out. The use of Old Testament characters and motifs was so pervasive; if you look at Rembrandt’s famous paintings, for example, a lot of them take Old Testament stories as their subject. Even the iconography—the tetragrammaton and Hebrew letters often appear in etchings, paintings and political pamphlets of that time. So you could really see the way the Dutch people imagined, through a sort of typological theology, that they were somehow repeating or refiguring the culture of the ancient Jews. This is of course true, a fortiori, of many of the first settlers in New England, who actually imagined that they were creating, not just a “new” England, but a new Israel.
RK: Many aspects of America’s political and moral consciousness can be attributed to Protestant sensibilities. How do you assess the current status of that heritage in America, in comparison to Europe?
PG: I think there’s one story that’s half true, and that gets summed up in the phrase “religious America and secular Europe.” We tend to think of America as a much more religious place than Europe, and that isn’t necessarily untrue, especially if you look at all the sociological indicators about belief in God: participation in church, who are more likely to pray, more likely to get married in a church, more likely to baptize their children, and on and on. But it’s less true than it seems. First, there’s an awful lot of mixing that goes on between American national identity and actual Christianity; so there’s a vague spirituality that’s just out there in American culture. In Europe, there’s less of that vague spirituality. But there’s more of a sense of sacrality about institutions, and particularly about the state. I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a German theologian, and his commentary on the state of Christianity in Germany is that there you have belonging without believing. So Europeans might continue to formally belong to, and even financially contribute to, institutionalized Christianity. But they don’t believe in any sense that American Christians would say is recognizably Christian. Whereas in the United States it’s kind of the opposite, where people think it’s your beliefs that save you, but the institution you belong to is really pretty secondary.
That was a very penetrating comment that sheds light on the whole Europe vs. America thing, where Protestantism has had an enormous influence on both places. But they’re visible and invisible in very different ways. I mean, it’s not a stretch to say that some Scandinavians might not fully appreciate the merits of the Gospel because there’s a sense that the Gospel has been fully realized through the Scandinavian welfare state. That might be exaggerating a little bit, but I don’t think a lot. Scandinavians take a great deal of pride in this, and they donate an enormous amount of resources to various aid programs, which can be construed as a kind of quasi-religious practice.
RK: On that note, there’s an interesting moment in The Disciplinary Revolution, where you group a collection of theologically disparate characters (Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin and Malcolm X) under the umbrella of Calvinist theology. This might have come as a surprise to many of their followers, or to contemporary readers. How did you see these figures threaded together by a Protestant Christian spirit?
PG: Well, one thing is the personal disciplines—the self-control, the continual monitoring of your own behavior, the constant striving to improve—that so often characterize revolutionaries. I suppose there’s a strand of contemporary American culture that might make it seem natural, normal or inevitable that we constantly strive to better ourselves. But if you look at other times and places, or other currents in American culture, it’s not at all natural or inevitable. Take the world of sport, where we now have all kinds of gadgets that are used to continually monitor our performance and track it and record it over time, to make sure that we can see when things are improving. I don’t think most people would immediately imagine that there’s some sort of connection here to the Protestant Reformation or Reformed theology. But I think there is. For example, there was a real stress the Reformers placed on moral “accounting.” We still talk that way today, when we say things like “personal accountability.” We think about that in kind of a vague way, and we don’t put much stress on the actual accounting. But I think that’s an important word that means we’re accountable to something, or somebody, or to God. But there’s also this practice of counting. I mean, literally tracking who we are over time, which is what the Puritans, for example, did; they regularly built in mechanisms and allotted time for a moral accounting of themselves and their actions. That’s all to say, you see this still in American sensibilities, both religious and non-religious.
RK: If we look exclusively on our side of the Atlantic, broadly speaking, what do you think has been the church’s place in American life?
PG: I guess my answer has to be a kind of Tocquevillian one, insofar as I think churches have had a tremendously positive impact on American society, so long as they’ve kept a certain respectful distance from the political sphere. That’s not to say disengaged, or uninvolved, but always maintaining a critical distance from politics. So how have they made this positive contribution? Well, through moral formation; that is, cultivating people who were capable of ordered liberty, which is very important. Also, as models of civility and hospitality, where the church can be a place where people learn to interact with one another in friendship and love, which makes them more capable of extending that outside of a church context. And then as a place that can teach habits of democratic association—the church has played a very complementary role in cultivating a strong sense of voluntary service.
Finally, when the churches, or the people shaped by them, have helped our country to remember or defend its higher ideals and purposes, that has been a really important contribution. One of my favorite examples is Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian realist theologian, who was masterful in his ability to think about what it means to inspire broken people to pursue higher justice. And Martin Luther King, Jr. is another who can’t be understood properly without appreciating his Christian upbringing and faith. I know there are people who want to make him out to be a secular community organizer, but I don’t think he’s properly understood if he’s only viewed that way.
RK: Of course, there are counterexamples, where Christianity has been employed to underwrite short-term political gains, sometimes seemingly at the expense of those higher moral ideals. In recent memory, the clearest example would be evangelical support of the Republican Party.
PG: If you have concerns about love, justice and righteousness in the world—as Christianity teaches—you can’t just turn your back on politics. Well, I guess you can, if you retreat to a sectarian existence. But I think that Christians are called to be in the world but not of the world, as Paul’s famous phrase goes. The difficulty arises when we get so pulled into political conflicts that we start to think whatever political positions we’ve committed ourselves to are more important than the higher values that we need to aspire to. If we also confuse the relationship between love and the law, and become too legalistic, it renders us vulnerable to a kind of political instrumentalization. That’s certainly happened with evangelicals and the Republican Party. There are a lot of people in the evangelical community who are waking up to this and reflecting on this—both theologically and organizationally.
I’m thinking back to the household names of pastors from a generation before, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who weren’t just pastors; they were entrepreneurs, they were political activists, they were best-selling authors and media personalities. Why does a pastor or church do all these other things? The obvious answer is to get a message out. But what if pastors and churches become more concerned with the power that comes through the media than the message itself? To come back to Tocqueville, he actually warned that when religious leaders become too embroiled in political alliances it will be to the detriment of things they care about most. Sadly, I think you can see the results of this now, where a lot of young people are leaving their traditions because of a felt imbalance. The sociological result of this I can forecast with great certainty: it’s a higher degree of secularization. Some might celebrate this, but we’ve seen this movie before in twentieth-century Europe and the same thing could happen here if our leaders don’t change course.
RK: As you’ve pointed out elsewhere, the place where this movie really began for Americans was during the Reagan administration. Prior to that, Americans had a sense of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called a “vital center,” where religious life informed political judgments. But religion and party weren’t welded together. What do you think happened in the Reagan years to change that?
PG: This is something historians and sociologists continue to debate. One narrative is that evangelical involvement in the United States is sort of like a roller coaster where sometimes they’re more active in political life and sometimes less. Another would say that heightened evangelical involvement in politics initiated as a backlash against the civil rights movement, which included a Supreme Court decision that forced Bob Jones University to lift its ban on interracial dating. There’s another story emerging now that sees conservative Catholics as the driving force behind this movement. Still others would point to Roe v. Wade as the catalyst for counter-mobilization of the religious right. It’s probably some combination of all of these things that led to a Reagan presidency, which consolidated a conservative coalition among mostly white evangelicals. It’s also something where evangelical leaders had to feel somewhat flattered and seduced by gaining proximity to that kind of political power, which—let’s face it—can happen to the best of us.
RK: What do you think Reagan himself made of the kind of spiritual stamp of approval some of these leaders offered him?
PG: Reagan had a sort of vague Emersonian spirituality. He didn’t have much of a sense of human sin, but rather a sense that the world is mostly good and we inhabit it in an almost pantheistic way. So it’s not my impression that Reagan had anything like an orthodox Christian understanding of the world. But I’m sure there had to be an attraction to get a moral stamp of approval from religious leaders for his mostly libertarian economic policies.
RK: You might say that Barack Obama, while he holds very concrete Christian convictions, also has an Emersonian way about him. How would you characterize the differences and similarities, insofar as both presidents carried forward America’s tradition of civil religion?
PG: It’s fair to say that Obama’s Christianity is a pretty standard ecumenical liberal Protestantism, and that he’s probably more serious about his religious convictions than Reagan was. But not enormously so. I think the differences have more to do with what religious groups they were associated with. For example, Obama was heavily influenced by the traditional black church in his overarching vision of the United States as a covenantal project pursuing the ultimate promised land over the horizon. With Reagan, you had someone who was picking up on traditions of personal responsibility and moral accountability, where the free market could be a mechanism that actually rewards certain kinds of personal virtues: perseverance, stamina, courage, etc. In this sense, it’s important that people make a distinction between the popular notion of free-marketeering capitalism and the robust economic understanding that comes from Reformed theology; that is, an understanding that certain human vices can be channeled and checked through economic activity. If there’s a deeper theological root to Reagan’s policies, that’s probably where it is.
RK: If Reagan’s presidency coincided with the political rise of the religious right, one of the interesting developments of the Obama years, for some of us anyway, was the emergence of a newly assertive secular left. If you chart the respective interests of each group, there’s a mirroring that starts to emerge—for instance, in their felt need to mark public space with symbols that assert their power. So, for years, religious conservatives have been fighting for public displays of Bible passages, crosses and the like, and liberals have been claiming that these are acts of civic overreach. But then after the Obergefell decision, which was a difficult decision for many religious conservatives, Obama approved lighting up the White House in a rainbow flag. To me, that seemed like the same kind of public expression that liberals had objected to in the past.
PG: The example hadn’t really occurred to me before. I can certainly see the symbolism frustrating a large number of people who didn’t support the court’s decision. But it seems to me that the bigger issue on both the religious right and the secular left is one of balance. The two subjects that have consumed religious conservatives in the past twenty or thirty years have been abortion and homosexuality. I think what people have maybe lost track of is that the reason those issues are so important is because those are the ones that have held together a political coalition. This has allowed Christian conservatives to lose sight of other issues like drug use and skyrocketing divorce rates, both of which have had a devastating impact on their own communities. (The other baffling thing to me is the issue of climate change, when caring for the Creation would seem to be something that conservative Christians would be interested in.)
On the left, likewise, there’s a question of balance and priorities. For instance, whatever somebody might think about transgender rights, it doesn’t seem to me that this is nearly on the same level of political importance as the opioid addiction crisis, or gun violence. But it is something that many in the liberal coalition feel passionate about.
RK: Going back to your comment about the “seriousness” of the Puritans, I was reminded of seeing Slavoj Žižek lecture a few years back, when he used the phrase “reverse puritanism” to describe what he sees as a contemporary reversal of the sexual prudishness of the colonial founders. Where the Puritans insisted on privatizing sexual identities and mores, Žižek diagnosed (kind of comically) as a dialectical inversion of the paradigm where now the expectation, whether it’s in elementary schools or on reality TV, is that we have to relentlessly publicize our sexual identities and preferences. And people take this need to publicize sexuality quite seriously, just as the Puritans took their sexual mores very seriously. I’m wondering if you think that seriousness is simply a thread that runs through the American consciousness—especially in regard to sex.
PG: Yeah, that’s an interesting observation. The American penchant for constantly discussing sex and sexuality is almost like a secular version of a religious confession of faith. And I do think we’re schizophrenic about this. What you described—this urge to publicly display, discuss and describe our sexuality—is certainly evident today. But there’s also a kind of modesty, especially in some younger folks (here I’m thinking of my own children), where there might be a hesitation to change in the locker room of a swimming pool. So there are ways in which people are still quite conflicted and ambivalent about publicizing their private sexual life. In this sense, there very well may be a deep seriousness that’s underneath this schizophrenia. And like with any number of other issues, we also seem to have a need to confess publicly who we are, what we believe, and where we stand.