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.