THR Web Features   /   February 24, 2014

The American Tradition of Civil Religion

Brianne Alcala

Philip Gorski spoke at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in February 2014 as a guest of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Civil religion is a distinctly American tradition, a dynamic engagement with enduring principles and ideals set against two rival traditions. So contends Philip Gorksi, a professor of sociology at Yale University, whose recent talk at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, "Prophetic Republicanism: The Civil Religious Tradition in America History," took up the subject of his forthcoming book. (The following quotes are taken from a written version of the talk.)

What precisely is civil religion? Gorski defines civil religion as a blend of prophetic religion (referring not to "the rapture" or "the apocalypse" but to a sense of God-given responsibility to a lawful and just society) and civic republicanism ( a "certain tradition in Western political thought" focused on the values of freedom, balance, virtue, etc.). For further clarity, he sets this evolving tradition of civil religion against two competing traditions: religious nationalism and liberal secularism.

He begins with religious nationalism:

On this reading, the United States is a chosen nation, chosen for its righteousness, the strong arm of the Lord, which he uses to punish evildoers. It is a very old tradition. I would argue that it goes all the way back to the Puritan crusades against the Native Americans. Nowadays, though, religious nationalism travels under the more innocuous sounding name of “American exceptionalism."

Liberal secularism, on the other hand, has as its governing ideals "private pleasure and individual autonomy":

As a self-conscious philosophical creed, though, liberal secularism does not really take hold until the late 19th century, with the rise of scientific materialism and laissez-faire economics. In the undiluted version of the liberal creed, there is really no such thing as an American project qua common good; just so many versions of the American Dream qua private prosperity. Nor is there any such thing as an American Republic; just so many private interests jostling with one another and for the attention of the median voter. Civic virtue is unnecessary, because free markets are sufficient to transform self-interest into collective goods.  Checks and balances are purely institutional and legal in form; and their sole purpose is to prevent government from restraining individual liberty.

Against these two traditions, Gorski then traces the evolution of America's civil religion from the Puritans to the American Revolution to the Civil War and on through the Civil Rights era to Obama's presidency. One highlight of that evolution was Martin Luther King Jr.'s contribution.:

What was King's contribution to the civil-religious tradition? Firstly, and most obviously, it was homiletic. The progressive civil religion had mostly been a high church religion, a civil theology of, by and for America's liberal Protestant elite. King translated their civil theology into a poetic register spoken in the prophetic rhythms of the black church. A second and perhaps less obvious contribution was synthetic. King was deeply conversant with many sources of the civil religious tradition. While he spoke in the cadences of the black church, he knew the writings of the founders, the speeches of Douglass and Lincoln, the writings of Dewey, Addams and Niebuhr. Indeed, his speeches can be read as a sort of civic catechism—and are used as such in our public schools today—which clothes our civic creed in narrative and metaphor.

To hear more thoughts about the history of civil religion and its future, watch a video of Professor Gorski's talk at U.Va.