“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?