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A Cosmopolitan Revelation

The Rick Steves Way of Travel

Anne Taylor

THR illustration; photographs from Shutterstock and

In the summer of 2018, I skipped Fourth of July barbecues and fireworks at home to venture to a wooden platform balanced atop the Aiguille du Midi in France, an unnerving peak rising 12,602 feet above sea level. The village of Chamonix, a rustic Alpine town turned luxury ski and mountaineering haven, was nestled far below. The day before, I had taken an old-fashioned train to the shrinking Mer de Glace glacier, now better known as a wake-up call to climate disaster than as a sight of striking natural beauty. On this day, though, I braved a 10,000-foot ascent in a gondola crammed with people to a breathtaking cliffside overlook, hoping for a clear view of the top of the Alps. From this perch, tourists were able to see the mountains not only of France but of Switzerland and Italy, including the real Matterhorn (far more impressive than its Disneyland namesake). While many took pictures, others watched an infinitesimal string of mountain climbers scale nearby Mont Blanc, the tallest peak not only in the Alps but in all of Western Europe. The terror and awe inspired by the sheer height and mass of these mountains must have been what Edmund Burke was describing when he wrote about the experience of the sublime.

I sat on a bench to catch my breath. Chamonix was my last stop on a twelve-day, five-country tour of the Alps with a company founded by the revered American travel maven Rick Steves. With a guidebook series that sells more than one million copies a year, some thirty years of television programs, a public radio show, a free app that offers hundreds of country-specific audio guides, a weekly “Monday Night Travel” class virtually attended by thousands of devotees, and an interactive website, Steves has taught Americans how to travel in Europe for nearly fifty years. In a 2019 profile, the New York Times Magazine called Steves a “travel guru” and “legendary PBS superdork…in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross, and Big Bird.” Steves’s desire to “save the world, one vacation at a time” was visually represented by a cover photograph showing him traipsing exuberantly, à la Maria von Trapp, across a meadow filled with chrysanthemums and Photoshopped butterflies, with a backdrop depicting an idyllic alpine scene rising behind him.11xSam Anderson, “Rick Steves Wants to Set You Free,” New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2019,  Steves’s philosophy—which he and the guides working in his name describe as “Europe through the back door”—teaches travelers to unlock the “real” Europe through historically grounded, budget-conscious experiences with an emphasis on “extroverted” interactions with locals, with the intention of steering visitors clear of the madding tourist crowds. His company annually leads more than a thousand small-group tours using some forty-six different itineraries, carefully designed by Steves to help people navigate what he describes as a glut of travel information.

On my second tour with the company—the first, in 2016, guided me through the “Heart of Italy”—I too was in search of something more than a vacation. Whether it was a reverent walk through the Holy Door into St. Peter’s Basilica or a gondola ride in pursuit of panoramic views, I was seeking a new perspective on life, not just bragging rights on Instagram. With my passage into adulthood complicated by the Great Recession and contentious politics at home, I wanted to be made over into the thoughtful and informed American abroad—all on a budget. My idealistic dream? To be mistaken for a local. Having been told by my Lebanese mentor that it was possible to spot an American in a crowd by the way they walk, I reckoned I needed more than a guidebook to learn the art of fitting in—something more akin to transformation. I had only a few weeks off from work and wanted a way to see the highlights of an “authentic” Europe in a way that would make me more authentic, too.

From Traveler to Tourist

Skepticism about whether a packaged tour can provide either renewal or authenticity is nothing new. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain quipped about the “funeral procession without a corpse” that was his packaged tour aboard the steamer Quaker City, on which he and his fellow travelers “bore down on [locals] with America’s greatness until we crushed them.”22xMark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 516. First published 1869. And the stereotype—and would-be antidotes to it—endure. Just as college students may idealize sleeping in grimy hostels as the truest way to experience Europe, older and wealthier travelers sipping negronis at Caffè Gilli in Florence look down their noses at herds of tourists following guides with neon flags through the Piazza della Repubblica. In his 1971 essay “The Lost Art of Travel,” published just five years before Steves led his first tour, the historian Daniel Boorstin described “the decline of the traveler and the rise of the tourist.” To Boorstin, modern capitalism made adventure a commodity. While travelers were “active,” and “went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience,” the tourist, Boorstin observed, is a passive “pleasure seeker” who “expects interesting things to happen to him…[and] everything to be done for him.”33xDaniel J. Boorstin, “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Travel,” in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York, NY: Atheneum, 1975), 84–85.

With his “superdork” public persona, packaged tours, and happy-go-lucky travel advice, Steves might seem to produce another variety of what the sociologist Harold Garfinkel called “cultural dopes,” who take everything at face value and never reflect on the deeper meaning of their actions.44xHarold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 68. But Steves founded his company with the idea of getting Americans outside their comfort zones. Abjuring the “Europe on $5 a Day” approach popularized by Arthur Frommer, this “hippie-backpacker-turned-tour-organizer,” as Steves describes himself, budgeted a mere $2.50 a day in the 1970s when he started traveling (and organizing tours) after high school, thinking that “soft and spoiled American travelers would benefit from a little hardship.”

I’d run tours with no hotel reservations and observe the irony of my tour members (who I cynically suspected were unconcerned about homelessness issues in their own communities) being nervous at the prospect of a night without a bed. If, by mid-afternoon, I hadn’t arranged for a hotel, they couldn’t focus on my guided town walks. In a wrong-headed attempt to force empathy on my flock, I made a point to let them feel the anxiety of the real possibility of no roof over their heads.55xRick Steves, Travel as a Political Act (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2009), 19.

There is more than meets the eye to Steves’s philosophy of travel, and more to his story. Having diagnosed a problem in American society—a stubborn navel-gazing that prevents people from establishing deeper connections with themselves and their communities—Steves has, from the very beginning, sought to teach travel as a kind of road to civic transformation.

Although his tours now come with secured hotel bookings, his ethos still emphasizes a “down home, gritty, salt of the earth” experience that leads to travel “magic.”66xRick Steves, “Celebrating 40 Editions of Europe Through the Back Door With Rick Steves” [video], Rick Steves Travel Talks, March 27, 2024,  The Rick Steves travelers who follow his guidance transcend the label of “consumers,” and they come to feel as if they are in on the secrets of the place, not just purchasers of the postcard but part of it. Asking for the room key in the language of the hosts—“due, cinque, quattro, per favore,” they join likeminded travelers in a circle of morally improved belonging. Such an experience can even cure them of their “ethnocentricity,” as Steves terms an American provincial outlook. Whether it truly does so is questionable, of course, but an eerie coincidence atop Aguille du Midi gave me reason to think that Steves’s project might indeed be sparking a kind of civil revival.

Neighborly Warmth in a Tourist Trap

Chatting with fellow tour members about the view, I happened to spot a man whose face looked naggingly familiar. Although he was not in our group, I was sure I knew him. Embracing the boldness that Steves encourages in his travelers, I called out in English, “Excuse me, have you ever traveled on a Rick Steves tour?” Clearly surprised, the man—about fifty or sixty years old with a sleek blue hiking jacket and brown polarized sunglasses—turned from his companions and replied that he had. Standing nearby were his son, daughter, and wife, and when they all turned my way, I realized that all four had been on tour with me two years before in Italy. “I was on that tour!” I shouted. The coincidence was striking: Not only did our paths cross atop one of the tallest peaks in France two summers after we traveled together, as strangers, on a Rick Steves’s Europe tour through Italy, but now, though traveling alone with only their guidebooks to lead the way, they just happened to be here the same day I was. Even weirder is that on that earlier tour, over a seafood dinner in the Cinque Terre, we had realized that we were all from the same small city—Boulder, Colorado. What was it, I wondered, after we posed for a group picture, that caused our paths to cross repeatedly? Could it be that traveling the “Rick Steves way” in pursuit of the magic of a “real” and “gritty” experience was what had twice brought us together?

For Rick Steves, travel is about more than a vacation or escape. It is a quest for authenticity. Like any guidebook claiming to capture “the real,” a Steves guidebook takes the “authentic” to be a very specific vision of Europe. What sets his tours apart, though, is the moral framework through which he envisions European travel. “More important than the ‘how’ we travel is the ‘why’ we travel,” Steves writes. “Thoughtful travelers do it,” he explains, “to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.”77xRick Steves, “In Troubled Times, Travel Can Be a Political Act,” Rick Steves’s Travel Blog (blog), June 10, 2020,

Emphasizing the goal of becoming a “temporary local” by packing light and going off the beaten path, Steves hopes to deepen travelers’ appreciation for the architecture, meadows, museums, villages, and shops of Europe.88xSteves, Travel as a Political Act, 4. In keeping with his progressive Lutheranism and liberal democratic commitments, he attempts to lead travelers to what I call a cosmopolitan revelation, a cure for the parochialism endemic to an American culture increasingly beset by the forces of homogeneity. Through the Rick Steves lens, I saw the noisy tourist throng in the halls of the Vatican part like the Red Sea as I spotted a cartographic depiction of the hill town of Sanza, home of my ancestors, in the Italian Gallery of Maps. The homemade limoncello served gratuitement after dinner in Chamonix seemed to draw me into the family. And a fortuitous encounter with an old acquaintance atop the Aguille du Midi gave me the feeling of being reborn—as at once a local and a citizen of the world. Traveling the Rick Steves way transforms Europe from one big Instagramming opportunity into a land fit for pilgrimage, and the traveler into a pilgrim on a formative journey. Making these changes happen is the life’s work of Rick Steves, the civil religionist.

Steves as Civil Religionist

In his famous 1967 article “Civil Religion in America,” the sociologist Robert Bellah defined civil religion as “the public religious dimension [of social life] expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals.”99xRobert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96, no. 1 (1967), 4. To understand what Bellah meant, one need only think of formulaic references to the divine such as “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the often-quoted exhortation to the Puritans that, per Matthew’s gospel, they covenant as a shining “city on a hill,” or the selectively observed words in the Declaration of Independence holding that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Bellah set out to understand what he called the “broken covenant” of American civil religion out of grave concern about the tumult of the twentieth century. “I am not sure that Americans or any other group of human beings have yet attained the wisdom to use [their amassed wealth and power] without self-destruction,” he subsequently wrote in his 1974 book The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. “I am convinced…that the first step toward that wisdom is humility in the face of who we are and where we come from.”1010xRobert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), xxii. First published 1974.

Yale University sociologist Philip Gorski, who studied under Bellah, expands on this thinking in his 2017 history of civil religion, American Covenant. Constructed through a predominantly Protestant Christian history of settler-colonial projects in North America, civil religion, Gorski explains, draws on both the Jewish and Christian Bibles and uses conquest narratives, apocalypticism, and prophetic religion to form the religious-nationalist sentiments that have for so long had a hold on so many American minds. At the same time, civil religion draws on the tradition of Western secular philosophy, including beliefs in the total separation of church and state and libertarian liberalism that, if taken to extremes, can promote a radical secularist view of civic life. While religious nationalists and radical secularists want to “keep their bloodlines pure,” Gorski argues that civil religion synthesizes two specific strands of these traditions: prophetic religion and civic republicanism. The result, prophetic republicanism, actualizes the dream of a robust vital center in American civic life, where citizens are morally grounded, care for their neighbors, and protect democratic ideals. Citizens such as these are what Gorski calls “civil religionists.”1111xPhilip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 19.

To some, the civil religionist may seem too good to be true, more in the fictive image of Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the ever virtuous Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing than a real and all too human American president. The civil religionist does not seek an explicitly Christian nation or a world free of religion, but acknowledges the presence of both ideals as persistent orientations in society. Civic community is a gift or end in itself. Accordingly, civil religionists will live by a standard of civility, seeking to engage opponents in “civic friendships,” Gorski writes, “and not just political alliances with those who are like-minded.”1212xIbid., 16. They will also embrace compromises, even those that are difficult, while rejecting both ideological absolutism and political violence. Their dream and desire is to widen the fold of belonging.

The civil religionist will also champion prophetic republican ideals not only at home but abroad. Bellah believed that those ideals, properly understood, should serve as a check on America’s recurrent bouts of expansionism and adventurism, seeing the Vietnam War as a particularly tragic example of a pattern extending back through policies and doctrines such as Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” diplomacy and Manifest Destiny. Bellah hoped for a civil religion in which our sacred symbolic ideals would rest on a “genuine trans-national sovereignty” incorporating a “vital international symbolism into our civil religion.” Because he held that “the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality,” Bellah insisted that the move toward transnational understanding, a “world civil religion,” as he called it, would not overthrow American civil religion but fulfill it.1313xBellah, “Civil Religion in America,” 18.

Answering the question of how to incorporate transnational understanding into American civil religious life may seem like a tall order, especially in these days of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” overtures and rising Christian nationalism, not to mention growing ideological absolutism on Capitol Hill, including political violence that the civil religionist pledges to reject. But this is the challenge Rick Steves has sought to meet over the last five decades, largely by showing that the “light of ultimate and universal reality” is not a shared belief in a specific god but a shared belief in humanity—a full view of humanity that one can see if only one dares to leave home.

The Cosmopolitan Cure

Steves’s pursuit of transformational travel began with the belief that traveling on a budget would not only open doors for more people to see the world but would also specifically open “back doors,” affording views of a more intimate and real Europe. In the 1970s, he started teaching Americans how to travel on the cheap (his book Europe Through the Back Door, originally self-published, is now in its fortieth edition), then pivoted in the 1980s and 1990s to a focus on art, history, and culture as his travelers grew older and wealthier. But he continued to emphasize “back door” localities like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Stow-on-the-Wold, and the five coastal towns that make up the Cinque Terre because of their distance from tourist hotspots.

In the early days of his company, when Americans faced a recession at home and hostility abroad, Steves preached the value of European travel in broadening the mind and soothing the soul. But why Europe? Steves certainly is not the first to claim that the continent was—or should be—sacred to Americans, especially to white Americans who claim and sometimes mythologize Europe as their ancestral home. Steves would answer that though his favorite country to visit is India, Europe is his “beat.”1414xRick Steves, “Europe vs. India,” Rick Steves’s Travel Blog (blog), October 8, 2009,  In the early 1990s, his company did try to expand beyond the boundaries of the European continent and published a handful of editions of Asia Through the Backdoor, but that project was short-lived. Steves justifies his focus on Europe by saying that it is the “wading pool” for Americans looking to travel internationally, especially those going abroad for the first time.1515xSteves, Travel as a Political Act, 47. Europe is similar enough to the United States, and shares enough history, to make American travelers feel comfortable, while being different enough to get them outside their comfort zones. Europe’s power to unlock the cosmopolitan imagination isn’t just talk to Steves. While he says travel can be a “state of mind,” to be truly transformed you must walk the walk.1616xRick Steves, “Why We Travel” [video], Rick Steves’s Europe, April 15, 2021,  You must go to Europe.

But this isn’t about contact with an ontologically “real” Europe: This is “Europe” as conceived by Rick Steves. Constructing a particularly material configuration of “Europe” through handpicked recommendations, Steves instills a sense of setting and choreography in his performance of travel. You taste the foods he tells you to try, you hike the trails he tells you to climb, and you patronize the “honesty shops” he steers you to, where customers are trusted to pay for what they take—and so you seem to enter the idyllic small town of yesteryear. Steves tours are intentionally designed to evoke a feeling of a Europe untouched by consumerism and set apart as the quintessential civic community. “Many American travelers miss the real Europe because they enter through its grand front door,” he writes.

This Europe greets you with cash registers cocked, $8 cups of coffee, high-rise hotels, and service with a purchased smile. Instead, you can give your trip an extra, more real dimension by coming with me through the back door, where a warm, relaxed, personable Europe welcomes us as friends. Rather than being just part of the economy, we become part of the party.1717xRick Steves, Europe Through the Backdoor, 37th ed. (Berkeley, CA: Avalon Travel, 2017), 13.  

Get Lost, Pack Light, Expand Your Activism

In the early 2000s, in the aftermath of 9/11, repeated mass-shooting episodes, and fraught presidential politics, Steves leveraged his popularity as a writer and PBS host to turn to a more explicitly political vision of travel. He retold the story of his decades of teaching even more emphatically in terms of travel as civic transformation. Budget-friendly travel in search of the authentic grit of Europe was not only practical but ritualistic.

Not everyone wants to be American, Steves jests in Travel as a Political Act, the mild sarcasm pointing to an often-overlooked truth. Appreciating European countries and cultures on their own terms, rather than as alien and inferior to our own, does not imply criticism of the United States, he insists, but a deeper appreciation of the origins of its most closely held values. It is “good citizenship,” he writes. “As a nation of immigrants, whose very origin is based on the power of diversity (‘out of many, one’), this should come naturally to us…and be celebrated.”1818xSteves, Travel as a Political Act, viii. Traveling the “Rick Steves way” is thus a means not only of overcoming American arrogance and egocentrism but of awakening citizens to the possibility of a cosmopolitan future —one in which many cultures are appreciated as unique and valuable. The acquisition of such a broad-minded appreciation requires a certain combination of ascetic Protestant self-denial, American individualism, and a happy-go-lucky attitude. Get lost, Steves says. Pack light. Meet new people. Try to speak the language. Have your “ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.”1919xIbid., vii.

As a civil religionist, Steves is open about how travel has influenced his own life, from campaigning for the legalization of marijuana in his home state of Washington to contributing generously to Christian charities such as Bread for the World. Doubling down on a commitment to address climate change, he recently donated more than $1 million to climate-focused nonprofits in 2023. He also produces television programs about travel in politically charged places outside Europe, including Iran, Egypt, Israel, and Palestine, and on topics such as global hunger and extreme poverty in Ethiopia and El Salvador.

While Steves’s civil religion vision incorporates the language of political formation, spiritual formation is also an important element. “You know, you can take everything I teach, and I teach in a secular world,” Steves said in a 2021 interview, “[and] you could swap out a few words and you could turn it into…a spiritual kind of teaching and thinking.”2020xRick Steves, “GBHEM Presents: Rick Steves, ‘Travel as a Spiritual Act’’’ [video], interview by Tammy Gieselman, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, United Methodist Church, March 23, 2021, In the last few years, he has begun to incorporate explicitly Christian religious language into his teaching and writing. In 2023, he partnered with Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen on the re-release of their 2010 film The Way, about a grieving father’s journey to complete his son’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Riffing on the title of his 2009 book Travel as a Political Act, he has also given lectures to Christian groups on the topic “Travel as a Spiritual Act,” in which he modifies his earlier talks on politics by incorporating explicit reflections on “the road as church.”

When I travel, I’m generally alone—but I’m never alone because I’ve got a beautiful relationship with my savior and with our heavenly father, and so on. And the cool thing about traveling is you recognize vividly that we’re all children of God on this planet and when you travel you get to know the family.2121xSteves, “Travel as a Spiritual Act.”

But this is not a Christian nationalist vision, Steves notes. Rather, travel, he says, cultivates empathy with humanity, of which Christian Americans are only a small fraction.

To Steves, travel is “a good stewardship” of both time and resources; it fosters solidarity, a “beautiful souvenir” for the traveler to take home.2222xRick Steves, “10 Tips for Traveling as a Political Act,” Rick Steves’s Europe, n.d., Rick Steves, “Rick Steves on ‘The Most Beautiful Souvenir’ and What We’re All Missing in Quarantine,” WGBH–Boston Public Radio, January 21, 2021, In his imagination of a broadened civil sphere, Steves preaches that the world has not been disenchanted at all—he seeks to reveal that enchantment was never truly lost. One need only enter through the back door to experience it.

Inspiring Cynicism—and Trust

Finding oneself among the swarms of tourists traveling through Europe each year can make it hard to connect to the idea of travel as a ritual of civil religion. After all, Steves’s tours led me among the throng, up the kitschy Royal Mile in Edinburgh and across the flooded Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Our guides were not carrying plastic flags, but we still padded docilely behind them with neon-colored Whisper System headsets in our ears. We dodged selfie takers and aggressive street salesmen, and our massive bus pulled onto the side of a single-track road for staged photoshoots of the scenery. It’s not easy to ignore the persistent commercialism of it all. Even harder to ignore is the cynicism that many feel about Rick Steves’s idealism.

That cynicism comes from both the political left and the political right. While some conservatives point to Steves’s style of cosmopolitan appreciation as proof of the progressive left’s lack of “America First” patriotism, progressives argue that Steves’s project to cure Americans of their insularity actually perpetuates it by centering the experience of the American traveler. Steves is also susceptible to charges of cultural appropriation rather than intellectual appreciation, with critics claiming that his overtures to friendship mask latent cultural and economic imperialism. As historian of religion and ethnographer Lucia Hulsether argues in a cleverly titled article, “Decolonization™,” this is typical for progressive activists like Steves, who may “engage in practices of reflexive self-critique and apology for past mistakes” but then continue to participate “in the economies they are disavowing,” thereby adding fuel to the critics’ fire.2323xLucia Hulsether, “Decolonization™,” in Religion and US Empire, ed. Tisa Wenger and Sylvester A. Johnson (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2022), 300.

Does Rick Steves’s vision of travel really work? Judged by the numbers, he’s certainly popular: Roughly half of the seats sold on his tours each year are purchased by returning customers, a remarkable tribute to Steves’s entrepreneurial savvy. During a recent presentation of the online “Monday Night Travel” class, when someone asked who held the record for most tours taken by one person, a staff member cited a man who “was up to 21 tours,” joking that it was a growing concern for the company’s bottom line. “There’s a $50 per tour cumulative discount that can be used once per year,” she wrote. “Rick was worried that we were close to paying [the gentleman] to go on tour.”2424xUnpublished online comments on Rick Steves, “Celebrating 40 Editions of Europe Through the Back Door” [video], Rick Steves Travel Talks, n.d., Steves also inspires a great trust among his travelers. During his company’s 2024 virtual “Festival of Europe” on Zoom, one viewer wrote to Steves in the comment box, “On my ten-hour flight to Europe, I downloaded all of your videos on YouTube. I feel so safe watching Rick Steves.”2525xUnpublished online comments on Rick Steves, “Festival of Europe: Grand Opening” [video], Rick Steves Travel Talks, January 24, 2024,

But what happens when Rick is not around? The guides who work in his name faithfully follow the Rick Steves doctrine by pushing travelers to sample potentially worthwhile experiences that might make them feel ill at ease, carry their own bags, attempt to speak the local language, and participate in group dinners. Not that all travelers comply. Although all customers sign an agreement not to complain on the tour, I have seen travelers violate their pledge, including one who yelled at the guide not to push her charges so hard. And though most travelers have a pretty clear idea about Steves’s progressive views when they sign up, they don’t always like what they hear on the tours. One guide shared a story about a tour through Germany, Austria, and Switzerland during which a vocal Trump supporter expressed his belief that the 2020 US presidential election had been stolen. The guide responded by noting that the 2016 Austrian election, after multiple recounts, yielded the same loss for the far-right candidate. The traveler was unimpressed. His views were so entrenched that hearing about a similarly challenged election in Austria—a challenge that had as little basis as the American one—did not alter or complicate his beliefs in the ways Steves might have hoped it would.

Despite these setbacks, in my eight years of researching Steves’s tours, I have on many occasions seen how they succeed in bridging partisan and ideological divides. On a tour I took in Scotland last year, the group spent the morning with a Scottish sheep farmer who proudly proclaimed his pro-Brexit views. Between whistling signals to his dog, he explained why he considered himself to be Scottish first and foremost and why he didn’t want European leaders like Angela Merkel dictating regulations or the price of his wool. Whatever they thought about his politics, the group was clearly taken by his gruff charm. The farmer wasn’t afraid to say that he used antibiotics on his animals and disliked environmentalists, and he proudly shared that he had never been bitten by a tick in his life because of his traditional methods for grazing his animals. On the last night of the tour, over a convivial dinner, the guide reflected on our day with the farmer, saying that he knew that for many of us it was “a real revelation to hear somebody who speaks just straight what’s in his mind and in his heart.” If there were Trump supporters among our group of mostly self-identified liberals, they would likely have been pleased to hear some of their own views being echoed by this proud Scotsman.

And isn’t that the goal of the civil religionist? To encourage encounters that foster compromise and friendship across ideological boundaries—and to help people find some common ground? Making civil religion real requires one to respect both the particular and the universal at the same time. “When we travel, we realize that suffering across the sea is just as real as suffering across the street,” Steves observed in “Travel as a Spiritual Act.”2626xSteves, “Travel as a Spiritual Act.” Perhaps the pilgrim’s path as a civil religionist is full of trials—and by that I mean, quite simply, a willingness to try. To try to forge compromise, to try to rejuvenate civic communities, to try to appreciate cultural difference, and to push the margins of experience. The dream of the civil religionist may be marked by contradiction, but this makes it no less valuable—and no more needed than it is now, in this time of civil fracture.