Sunday, March 28, 2010

Trying to Understand the American Civil Religion While Living It

Yale sociologist Philip Gorski offers a fine overview of the several traditions of American civil religion. The kind he likes, civic republicanism, is a middle ground between religious nationalism (think Sarah Palin) and secular liberalism (think Ayn Rand). In this ground-clearing essay, "Civil Religion Today," Gorski helpfully lays out the competing traditions, which was his main task. He also concludes that any kind of realistic story of American civil religion has to include the fact that hope does sometimes win.

I agree with all of this, and plan to build on it in my American religion course. I think the deep underlying idea of any study of American religion is the struggle of competing civil religions. This is a hard idea for students to get, though, so we work our way through all of the particular denominational traditions first.

What I am wrestling with now is how the tradition of civic republicanism can help me understand the particular narrative of American civil religion that I was raised in and embrace. My story sees America as a city on a hill, the nation with the soul of a church, an errand in the wilderness. The Revolution was a world-historical step forward in creating a democratic nation, which rests, as Tocqueville, said, on continuously reproducing a virtuous citizenry. The Civil War was the necessary re-making struggle of the nation to overcome our core contradiction between democracy and caste. This struggle was not fulfilled until the Civil Rights Movement. Our vocation in the world now is to be the last best hope of democracy without becoming an empire.

This narrative is a deep and real American tradition. What I am trying to suss out is whether the tradition of civic republicanism, apart from its specific American form, offers guidance and limits to how we can live out this narrative without being corrupted by the unprecedented world power that America now has.


randy said...

but what if one believes-as i do-that the narrative you describe-with the intention behind the American Revolution perhaps excepted-is largely Fictional?

it's difficult to get too excited aabout a story that is mostly hopeful mythology and self-congratulation.

Gruntled said...

Do you have an alternate story, or none at all?

randy said...

i geuss i feel that straightforward, factual history and nuanced historical analysis is good enough. you don't NEED a narrative if you're not confused or trying to pull something dubious...

the chinese need a narrative for why they invaded tibet. the texans needed a narrative for stealing texas from mexico. the zionists need a narrative for post 6-day war occupations of palestinian arab territory. we need a narrative for occupying iraq.

but, as i say; the american revolution, the documents of the constitution(ever notice how NO ONE says ANYTHINNG negative EVER about the constitution)and the bill of rights, the institutions set up by the men we call the Founding Fathers...these really DO seem to be somethiinng New and Good in human hisstory.

Gruntled said...

So how do you read the struggle against slavery and for black equality?

Black Sea said...

"So how do you read the struggle against slavery and for black equality?"

Logical outcome of the industrial revolution.

halifax said...

I read Gorski’s essay with interest, but am unconvinced. His distinction between civic republicanism and religious nationalism in the American context is not persuasive in the least, primarily because it is not an historical distinction for him but a normative one. He separates those who use religious language in the public sphere into the sheep of civic republicanism and the goats of religious nationalism, when there really isn’t much difference in the way that religion is used by either. Indeed, it has always been the case that the civic republican insistence on the importance of a civil religion, when it has taken religion as a set of creedal commitments, has expressed itself in the messianic, chiliastic, and apocalyptic terms of exceptionalism. And the experiments of Cromwell in Britain, Calvin in Geneva, and the Puritans in the new world have more in common with the experiments of the Jacobins in France, the National Socialists in Germany, and the international socialists/Bolsheviks in Russia than with the development of limited constitutional government in Britain (and her North American colonies), Switzerland, and Holland during the late 17th and 18th centuries.

The primary problem with Gorski’s essay is a confusion between or perhaps conflation of historical explanation and polemical exhortation. What you have here is a good example of what Butterfield called Whig history, i.e. the reading of the past solely in terms of its contribution to present concerns. (By the way, Butterfield noted that the Whigs made good politicians but bad historians.) Of course, every person who engages in political life has a practical/legendary/mythical conception of his/her political community. Gruntled’s particular myth about American politics and civil religion is certainly a powerful one, and may be the most commonly held among contemporary American political actors. It is composed of a series of stock characters and images (the Founders with a capital ‘F’, Mr. Lincoln as Christ figure, the Declaration as holy writ, MLK as Moses redux, etc.). Robert Penn Warren called this particular legend the ‘Treasury of Virtue’. When it is not historically inaccurate, it is historically na├»ve, but that is the character of legendary pasts, after all.

halifax said...

A more reasonable and convincing legend (in my opinion, of course) is that the characteristic of primary importance when considering the colonial period and the time of the first American war of secession is the variety and diversity of political and religious forms among the various colonies. The colonies were created in very diverse ways (see Albion’s Seed for a discussion of this diversity), and both the first and second American constitutions (which created the first two American republics) were recognizably the outcome of a people who recognized their allegiance to their local ways of acting, believing, worshipping, etc. There was no common substantive civil religion, and this accounts for the suspicion, not of authorized churches at the state level, but of the explicit rejection of them at the national level.

Thus, a set of quasi-autonomous and diverse self-governing provinces banded together for certain limited purposes, the primary one being the defense of the territory itself. Starting from this, the claims of a nationalizing, centralizing, homogenizing tale with people like Lincoln as its hero appear farcically wrong-headed. Instead of preserving self-government, Lincoln is the iconic destroyer of self-government and the creator of the first American empire (and the third American republic). It is surely no accident that the genocidal treatment of the aboriginal peoples of North America was accelerated greatly by the militarization of the entire population of the US during the second American war of secession.

So, instead of a whiggish tale of the victory of equality and democracy (of which the ‘Founders’ had nothing positive to say), we instead have a tale of the declension of liberty and self-government (and, by the way, civic republicans have always been suspicious of largeness of any sort).

My legend also manifests an Augustinian disposition toward exceptionalism, as opposed to Gruntled’s Calvinist embrace of such a notion. Augustine was highly critical of Eusebian history, precisely because it involved the hubristic identity of one’s temporal political community (and often personal interests) with the inscrutable will of God. Augustine rightly rejected this idea because he saw that it could be used to justify any sort of vile action and it has been the source of (or one of the sources) of the justification of the Crusades, of the Wars of Religion in Europe, and, in its secularized or quasi-secularized form, the modern wars of ideology. Augustine also recognized (and modern-day Augustinians like Stanley Hauerwas echo this notion) the difference between a church and a political community and the danger when we conflate the two. Our opponents then become not merely disagreeable but positive manifestations of evil, a situation that is now more common than it has been in any time since the wars of religion.

My conclusion is that Gruntled’s legend of the American civil religion is not in danger of being corrupted by American power or empire because it has always been inextricably tied to both. In terms of the non-Anglophone tradition of civil religion, the primary tale that it tells is that a political community the size of the US is inherently corrupt and that self-government can only work in small relatively homogeneous populations. The latter has never been the situation in the US, at least not at any level above the states themselves, and certainly is not now. Further, the notion of positive liberty posited by the civic republicans is inherently confused (see Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty), and dangerous to real liberty. So, I would say that civic republicanism offer nothing that is usable and at least one thing (the notion of positive liberty) that is harmful.