Neither one nor the other?

An interesting brief review from the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement:

Philip Gorski


A history of civil religion from the Puritans to the present

336pp. Princeton University Press. £27.95 (US $35).

978 0 691 14767 3

In American Covenant, Philip Gorski argues that the United States was founded neither as a Christian nation nor as a secular democracy. Instead, the founders sought to establish what he describes as a prophetic republic: one that drew inspiration both from the Bible and the Western heritage of civil republicanism.

Gorski supports his case with reference to various proponents of this tradition, including John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Timothy Dwight, Abraham Lincolm, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Yet today’s culture wars, increasing wealth disparity, the breakdown of the party system and the rise of populism are said to have torn this “American tapestry” apart. Only a return to the vital centre, he argues, can move beyond the current political impasse. But this can only happen if two rival traditions of political thought are overcome.

The first is religious nationalism, which sees America as a Christian nation divinely chosen to rid the world of God’s enemies. This tradition arose with a certain faction of Puritan thought, as exemplified by Cotton Mather, who viewed Native Americans as the enemies of the one true God. It lives on in Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech, George W. Bush’s “us versus them” rhetoric after 9/11, and comparable language employed by Donald Trump.

Perhaps the way to overcome religious nationalism would be to make America more secular. But Gorski blames the tradition of radical secularism for being just as much a threat to US politics as religious nationalism. It constitutes a “noxious blend of cultural elitism and militant atheism” and a “misguided effort” to censor, in the name of science and reason, the ignorant religious masses. Gorski suggests this tradition emerged during the Reconstruction era with the radical individualism of William Graham Summer and the militant agnosticism of Robert Ingersoll. The secularist mindset dominates America’s institutions of culture.

Gorski believes a return to consensus politics will get the US back on track. But he seems to underplay the specific political and economic conditions that allowed for the temporary successes of vital-centre politics in the heyday of the Cold War: an unprecedented global economic boom, hysteria over the Red Scare, the fear of a nuclear holocaust, and the exclusion of women, racial minorities and gays into the mainstream. Back then, many elites had real incentives to buy into the vital centre, especially given their fear of revolutionary socialism. It is not clear, though, based on Gorski’s analysis, why the most well off would feel the need to do this today.


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