The long battle between exclusionary and inclusive versions of the American story
Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular democracy? Neither, argues Philip Gorski in American Covenant. What the founders envisioned was a prophetic republic that would weave together the ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. In this eye-opening book, Gorski shows why this civil religious tradition is now in peril—and with it the American experiment.
American Covenant traces the history of prophetic republicanism from the Puritan era to today, providing insightful portraits of figures ranging from John Winthrop and W.E.B. Du Bois to Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Featuring a new preface by the author, this incisive book demonstrates how half a century of culture war has drowned out the quieter voices of the vital center, and demonstrates that if we are to rebuild that center, we must recover the civil religious tradition on which the republic was founded.
Gorski (The Protestant Ethic Revisited), a sociologist and religious studies professor at Yale, offers a sweeping and exhilarating review of the history of American political culture. He revives Robert Bellah's famous idea of civil religion to look at three intertwined strands of political theology: religious nationalism, which fuses religion and politics; radical secularism, which completely divorces the two forces; and, midway, civil religion, which he sketches as a prophetic republicanism based on ideals drawn from biblical prophets and millennia of political philosophy. He analyzes key figures, offers refreshing insights into some, such as W.E.B. DuBois and John C. Calhoun, and is never shy about offering remedies for the corruption of the American civic spirit. National service is one bold recommendation to reawaken a spirit of public engagement. Gorski's interpretation is likely to be challenged, and it should be, as part of the process of taking his thesis seriously and using it to move forward politically. More academics should follow his example of contributing to public debate in an accessible way.