Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Book Reviews

By Whose Waters We Wept…

“White Christian nationalism” remains a grievance-driven mode of whiteness.

Charles Mathewes

Jericho Marchers demonstrate outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol, January 5, 2021; Paul Weaver/Sipa USA/Alamy Stock Photo.

“This is not another book about Donald Trump,” we read on the first page of this compact yet ambitious study, but we know at once that this is true and not true. Even though it does not spend time on Trump himself, it is clearly a book about how this alarmingly disruptive figure has made many of us see what we had not wanted to see. It bears witness to a long soul-searching, not so much about Trump but about America, and the author’s own previous thinking on closely related subjects.

Philip S. Gorski is a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University, but he is not just a social scientist. He is a social theorist, a scholar firmly in command of his own discipline but deeply aware of how that discipline is only part of a wider and deeper history of human inquiry. This humanistic breadth—taking in Goethe as well as Weber, Aquinas along with Tocqueville—has always been a part of his work, from The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe to his recent American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.

American Babylon combines a Tocquevillian analysis of what Gorski calls the “civic ecology” of the contemporary United States with a Weberian genealogy of Christianity’s long and ambivalent relationship to democracy, all to help us see where we are and how we got here. The book’s discrete analytic insights are substantial. Gorski usefully distinguishes four different species of democracy, to help us see that our particular kind of democratic culture is not the only kind possible (and indeed to make the point that any democratic culture is more contingent than we smugly assume). Likewise, his study of Christianity’s ambivalences (especially those of American Protestantism) toward democracy is illuminating and disturbing. At base, however, the book grapples with one simple question: What can we understand about America after Trump? There are three real puzzles that this book addresses in the course of answering that question.

The first and most immediate is why most conservative Americans supported a president so visibly unlike any other in US history. More pointedly, why did 81 percent of white evangelical Christians support Donald Trump in 2016—a proportion that actually grew during the four years of his presidency—in seeming defiance of their religiously grounded moral principles? While in 2011 more than 60 percent of white evangelicals expressed the belief that immoral personal conduct disqualified someone for the presidency, by October 2016 that figure had slipped to 20 percent, and continued to decline, to 16 percent, by 2018. Such a conveniently opportunistic “transvaluation of values” made white evangelicals’ professions of piety seem ludicrous, not only to nonevangelicals but even to a few prominent co-confessionals such as Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson, and, more recently, Beth Moore and David French.

How did this happen? In Gorski’s telling, the culprit is “White Christian nationalism.” He emphasizes the nationalism here, anchoring the energy in earlier Christian tropes of messianic expectations, a belief in a God-granted promised land, and a reflexive sense of victimization (what might even be called a “martyr complex,” to bring out the confessional aspects a bit more). But is that diagnosis sharp enough? While theology is certainly important, Gorski may underplay the role of race. As a sociologist, he is alert to “structural racism,” but his comments here (including his allusion to the idea of “racism without racists”) are too elliptical to convince those not already willing to admit its existence. After all, “White Christian nationalism” remains a grievance-driven mode of whiteness. How do its theological sources interact with—perhaps encourage, perhaps even foster—the racism?

 More on the racial dimensions would also be helpful in engaging Gorski’s second large puzzle, concerning the “culture wars” and especially the nature of the “religious right.” Today, most scholars agree that the culture wars are real, but not that long ago many of them dismissed sociologist James Davison Hunter’s Kulturkampf hypothesis because they didn’t want it to be true. Yet even if the notion is now widely accepted, the nature of the conflict is still debated. What exactly are the culture wars about?

For Gorski, these conflicts were between religious conservatives and secular progressives, primarily over sexual permissiveness and the rejection of traditional gender roles. But sexual freedom and women’s liberation was never the sole issue. The boring decency of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, for instance, contrasts starkly with the seraglio antics of Newt Gingrich or the serial family crises of Sarah Palin, the now-divorced grandma of multiple out-of-wedlock grandkids. What was the spark?

Historians today would see the rise of the religious right not only as a recoil against sexual liberation and the rejection of “family values” but just as crucially as the product of white people’s fear of losing their cultural centrality. Ever since Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s adoption of the “Southern Strategy” in 1968, the GOP has played, covertly and openly, on white fears of declining social and economic status, a condition attributed in large part to the policies, and indeed the demographic makeup, of the Democratic Party. Economic anxiety, the collapse of the family and local sustaining institutions, and the recoil from “elites” are important factors, to be sure, but careful studies demonstrate that their salience must be understood in relation to white racial anxiety and resentment (see, most recently, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, by John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck).

Gorski’s third puzzle is an issue that goes deeper still: What has caused the dramatic change in public order in the United States since the 1960s? Mostly, he thinks it resulted from the disappearance of the Establishment, the “Protestant Mainline,” a sort of auto-da-fé brought about by the “self-secularization” of liberal Protestantism over the past several generations. But what does “secularization” exactly mean here? What caused it? And what is to be done about it, particularly for those who want to live a faithful religious and civic life? If Donald Trump’s supporters are a poor model of what to do, is there a better one?

In fact there are two senses of “secularization” that need distinguishing here. In one sense, “secularization” means the loss of an otherworldly religious logic as an overarching governing scheme for social order. The work of José Casanova and others on the fate of public religions in the modern world is illuminating here. But in a second sense, this dethroning of religion has not led to its replacement by a radically “secularist” discourse, one wholly materialist or amorally technocratic. “Secularization” has not evacuated meaning and value from public discourse. Quite the contrary: Values suffuse the public sphere. Indeed, the public sphere is more crowded with values than ever before. “Secularists” may not be religious, but they are certainly employing value language. Recent years have even seen conservative Christians trolling people on the “secular left” as a way of provoking leftist moral outrage (“owning the libs”).

As “post-secularist” thinkers point out, the secularization that has happened has not been fundamentally negative or evacuative. It has brought not nihilism but pluralism. Multiple moral authorities exist, but each exercises sovereignty only weakly and partially, over only a part of the social order. (This is the deep truth underlying the discussions about the “norm breaking” of Trump and his cronies, and it is also revealed in the anxieties around so-called cancel culture.)

Gorski sees all of this, but he does not explore it, at least not here. To do so, we may need to mix our Max Weber with a dash of Émile Durkheim. Indeed, scholars informed by Francophone thinking have done this, including Charles Taylor, Michael Ignatieff, and the anthropologist Didier Fassin. Perhaps, as some have suggested, humanity and human dignity and even the politics of recognition are becoming a new form of the sacred. Is that what “secularization” amounts to—a kind of “immanentization” of transcendence?

Whatever this “secularization” amounts to, we still must ask what caused it. Two popular accounts explain the Protestant Mainline’s demise as a surrender. The first is the self-congratulatory story told by nonreligious secularists for whom the Protestant liberals’ self-secularization was simply an admission of an obvious truth, namely, that their core evangel had to be subordinated to the manifest facts of science and pluralism. The second account is the self-congratulatory story told by religious conservatives for whom the liberals’ self-secularization was fundamentally a matter of the Mainline’s failure of nerve, a cowardly submission to a growing secularist hegemony and a faithless collaboration with secularists. Both explanations depict the Mainline’s action as submission, surrender—and both fall short.

The historian David Hollinger offers a useful corrective to these accounts. He argues that secularization is not a defeat of the liberal Protestant Mainline but its triumph. The Mainline’s constituents saw pluralism not just as a looming reality hurtling toward them but as something they wanted to encourage and, if possible, actively host. They did so, Hollinger thinks, not only through direct public action but through the creation of a network of institutions that would become pluralistic by the second generation after their founding—say, in the 1970s and ’80s. What the Mainline failed to foresee was that the pluralism of these institutions would make their anchoring in any overt theological grounding unnecessary for the institutions’ continuance. Those institutions would move from being open to multiple positions and confessions to not requiring the churches at all. What then would the churches do? They themselves had unmoored public morality from any ecclesiastical anchorages; religion and ethics came apart.

Hollinger’s account leaves unaddressed the question of what the churches are doing if they have released “ethics” from their grip. It’s not that churches can’t speak about ethics; it’s just that ethics doesn’t need religious institutions in the ways it used to. Ethical norms have multiple possible hosts in the social ecology, not necessarily only religious institutions. This causes trouble because some of those hosts are less healthy than others. (Think social media sites or, for that matter, much of the public media.)

Then again, the churches aren’t necessarily the healthy environments for generating moral, or civic, or even spiritual “capital” that they once were. Gorski’s acute analysis of the changing nature of churches in the past few decades is one of the great strengths of his book. How do we assess the moral and spiritual consequences of the economic, social, and cultural changes that came along with (though not necessarily because of) pluralism? And how ought we respond to them? In a way, one of the singular achievements of American Babylon is to allow us to ask these questions—prescriptive, not descriptive—at all. While Gorski’s book is about where we are and how we got here, not so much about (to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr.) “Where do we go from here?,” he still clearly wants that question to be asked.