April 21, 2022
Ryrie, Alec ’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2019.
Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt is a fascinating, original, and compelling historical study. A scholar of the Reformation, Ryrie’s interest is in the stirrings of atheism in the centuries leading up to and following 1517—the stories of peasants and publicans, philosophers and priests who began to question God’s existence, God’s wisdom, or God’s mercy. Ryrie argues (among other things) that “atheism” referred in this historic span to a range of different theological positions, not just the blunt yes/no to God’s existence.
On one level, this book is a compendium, a historian’s banquet of vignettes, quotations, and studies of figures like Montaigne, Browne, and Earle. This cascade of examples, though, is trained on an idea Ryrie articulates most pointedly in the book’s introduction and final chapter, an idea about the relationship between thinking and feeling. Specifically, Ryrie is skeptical that arguments and ideas can ever make up minds in questions of belief and disbelief. This is set up by the book’s epigraph, from Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending: “Most of us, I suspect . . . make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.” Ryrie develops this with a sophisticated meditation, offered in the introduction, on the relationship between emotion and cognition, and builds even more philosophical scaffolding around it in his discussion of Pascal in Chapter 6.
Like Pascal, Ryrie is pessimistic about the possibility of persuasion using rational argument. “Apart from a heroic or cold-hearted few,” he writes early on "most of us make our lives’ great choices – beliefs, values, identities, purposes – intuitively, with our whole selves, embedded as we are in our social and historical contexts, usually unable to articulate why we have done it, often not even aware we have done it. If we have the inclination, we might then assemble rationalisations for our choices: rationalisations which may be true, but in a meagre, post hoc way" (Ryrie: 2019, 4).
So the focus is on how a sedimentation of frustrations, hopes, desires, fears, and all our other affective tissues accumulates and forms a structure that makes an intellectual posture feel compelling in the first place. The resonance between the idea and the edifice of feelings, he writes, “is not an argument; it is a gag reflex” (Ryrie: 2019, 54f).
This is why Ryrie focuses instead on the felt components of atheism, and in particular anger and anxiety. This tracing of the emotional genealogy of atheism is not, he assures us, to disdain it. Ryrie early on identifies himself as a Christian, but the book takes a winningly diplomatic attitude toward nonbelievers, repeatedly highlighting how the faithless position arrives with real and compelling moral force. Flipping the script on the bulk of recent atheist and Christian apologetic tracts, Ryrie goes out of his way to admire and honor those he disagrees with. Atheist anger—the fury of a Huxley or a Bakunin raining scorn on crooked churches—is all too powerful; and atheist anxiety—the sickness unto death of Dostoevsky’s existential self-flagellators horrified by the moral inadequacy of the world—is an extension of the most compelling currents of Christianity itself.
By design, this book is light on citations, aiming for the wider readership of interested skeptics and believers looking for new ways to map their own faith and lack thereof. That’s all fine, but it means the links between Ryrie’s work and the bigger conversations happening in the field of critical secularism studies aren’t developed here. Ryrie would be very interested in, for instance, the question asked by Ann Pellegrini: “What does secularism feel like?” And he’d be equally intrigued by her answer: “it feels a lot more like religion than we commonly suppose.” (Pellegrini: 2009, 205) Similarly, Saba Mahmood’s argument in her article “Religious Reason and Secular Affect” is that secularism comes along with its own “schesis”—its own proper set of affective attachments. (Other works in this conversation include Scheer, Fadil, and Johansen: 2019; von Scheve, Berg, Haken, and Ural: 2020; Levine: 2011; and solo-authored volumes like Bennett: 2001, Smolkin: 2018, and Sullivan: 2020.)
Even though Ryrie plugs into affective theories of atheism, he still tends to see atheism as primarily driven by a philosophical agenda. Yes, there is anger at God for failing to deliver justice, and anxiety about the tenuousness of salvation. But the extent to which these drive atheism—rather than, say, horror at priestly abuse, disgust with corruption, or contempt for false-faced self-righteousness—may be overstated here. As much as some of our twentieth century ontologies might imagine otherwise, human beings are not, by and large, moody existentialists ruminating on the cosmos. Religious disaffiliation is less often about the consummately Protestant notion of a clash of creeds than theologians and philosophers might anticipate. (And that’s not to mention the powerful intuition—both intellectual and affective—that theology and religious narrative are just plain wrong.)
Ryrie’s chorus is mostly white, male, and European. This may be a factor in one of the book’s main limitations, namely, that Ryrie doesn’t do enough to study how the emotions of atheism are linked to power. The lack of attention to how disdain for ultra-conservative religion drives people away from churches, mosques, and temples is an oversight, but so, too, is the way some contemporary formations of atheism are deeply informed by Islamophobic rage. Stephen Bullivant, for instance, points out that the unexpected runaway success of the New Atheism in the 2000s may well have been connected with a decades-long rising tide of anti-Muslim racism. I would add to Ryrie’s formula, then, not just the feelings that push people away from religion, but feelings that actively entice them in the direction of unbelief understood not just as privation, but, as Charles Taylor saw, as a new template for living in the world (Taylor: 2007, 4; Schaefer: 2017, 2022).
Monique Scheer, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen have written that “[e]ven to claim there is such an entity as ‘secular emotions’ is therefore already a destabilization and critique of… secular logic.” (Scheer et al.: 2019, 10) Ryrie has put together a compelling study of exactly this triangular cat’s cradle between belief, disbelief, and feeling. Most significantly, Ryrie opens doors to asking how this framework is more than just a question about religion and nonreligion. It translates into wider epistemological inquiries about how minds are made up, changed, or converted. And it transacts with political questions about how we define borders and identities. Ryrie’s challenge of the modernist autobiography that sees the secular as fundamentally about the triumph of reason over feeling is a compelling and timely intervention.
Donovan O. Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Bennett, Jane. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Bullivant, Stephen. “The New Atheism and Sociology: Why Here? Why Now? What Next?” In: Amarasingam, Amarnath, ed. Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2010: 109-124.
Levine, George, ed.. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry 35 (Summer 2009): 836-862.
Pellegrini, Ann. “Feeling Secular.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19.2 (July 2009): 205-218.
Schaefer, Donovan O. “Beautiful Facts: Science, Secularism, and Affect.” In: Feeling Religion. Corrigan, John, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017: 69-92.
Schaefer, Donovan O. Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022.
Scheer, Monique, Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, Nadia Fadil. “Secular Embodiments: Mapping an Emergent Field.” In: Scheer, Monique, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, ed. Secular Bodies, Affects and Emotions: European Configurations. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019: 1-14.
Scheer, Monique, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, ed. Secular Bodies, Affects and Emotions: European Configurations. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Smolkin, Victoria. A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.
Sullivan, Marek. Secular Assemblages: Affect, Orientalism, and Power. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
von Scheve, Christian, Anna Lea Berg, Meike Haken, and Nur Yasemin Ural, eds. Affect and Emotion in Multi-Religious Secular Societies. London, UK: Routledge, 2020.
February 11, 2022
Editor’s Note: Over the past week, we have published a series of five responses – by Darren Dochuk, Kai Parker, Slavica Jakelić, Molly Farneth, and Paul Dafydd Jones – to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump. In this post, Gorski offers a response to the responses.
It is a pleasure and an honor to engage with such a distinguished and insightful group of colleagues who understood so well what I was trying to say in American Babylon. So well, in fact, that they all spotted issues that I failed to address adequately.
As Darren Dochuk rightly notes, one of the major shortcomings of my analysis – and of much academic work on the Christian right – is that it often pays too little attention to evangelicalism’s “alternative media system,” the sprawling network of print and broadcast media that promotes its “Biblical worldview.” I would only add that this network is itself being disrupted and transformed right now by the advent of social media. Clearly scientific authority is currently under assault, but so is cultural authority more broadly, including theological authority within the evangelical subculture and the Christian Right in general.
It is not the first such disruption. Again and again throughout history, the advent of new communications technologies has upended existing systems of cultural authority and knowledge production and created openings for radical movements and revolutionary ideas. The breakthrough of the Protestant Reformation cannot be understood apart from the invention of moveable type. No Gutenberg, no Luther. No Luther, no Müntzer. Nor can the mass movements of the early 20th century – populist, socialist and fascist – be explained apart from the advent of microphones, stadiums, radio, and film. No Marconi, no Mussolini. The same is true today. Social media has broken down the boundaries between the fringe and the mainstream. No Dorsey, no Twitter. No Twitter, no Trump. The disruption of theological authority within the Christian right has opened the doors to charlatans and grifters. Who has a greater influence on the religious right today, Tucker Carlson or Al Mohler? Where does white nationalism end and Christian nationalism begin? Everything that was solid melts into…sludge.
This points to another shortcoming of American Babylon highlighted by Kai Parker: my account pays too little attention to anti-Black racism. I speak of “white Christian nationalism” (WCN) without explaining what’s “white” about it. In a forthcoming book, The Flag and the Cross, Samuel Perry and I address this issue head on. We show that racial, religious, and national identity have always been intertwined with one another in American political culture, and that they still are today. There, we define WCN as a “deep story” and a “political vision.” The deep story goes something like this: America was founded as a (white) Christian nation by (white Protestant) Christian men; it is an exceptional nation with a providential mission; it has been blessed by God with power and prosperity; however, the presence and influence of non-whites and non-Christians on American soil threatens the country’s mission and blessings; the nation must be purified and order must be restored. This story is so deeply engrained in the consciousnesses of some white Christians that they instinctively feel that America is “their” country, and that it has been “taken away” from them.
The political vision is defined by a holy trinity of freedom, order, and violence, all interpreted in a particular way: “Freedom is understood in a libertarian way, as freedom from restrictions, especially by the government. Order is understood in a hierarchical way, with white Christian men at the top. And violence is seen as a righteous means of defending freedom and restoring order, means that are reserved to white Christian men” (7). Today, it is conservative white evangelicals who most firmly embrace this vision. But as Parker rightly points out, it has not always been so. Until the mid-20th century, it was liberal white Protestants who were the principal social carriers of WCN, in the North as well as the South. They are also the forebears of today’s secular progressives. This is too often forgotten.
In American Babylon, I critique WCN as a betrayal of Christian universalism. In her contribution, Slavica Jakelić worries that my critique misses as much as it captures. She agrees that moral universalisms can be used to problematize racial hierarchies. But she reminds us that they can also be used to justify conquest and empire by hoisting the flags of “evangelism” and “civilization.” Jakelić likewise agrees that exclusionary forms of religious nationalism are a political bad. But she rightly notes that any form of religious community will be exclusionary to some degree. The broader point, if I understand correctly, is that religious universalisms inevitably take particularistic forms, and that these forms are historically and culturally variable. The universal can only be realized via the particular, which is to say, imperfectly.
So, where does that leave us? In the present day, the relevant context is the nation-state, the default form of political community in the contemporary world. In this context, a civic vision of the nation combined with a democratic form of government best accords with the universalistic and egalitarian principles of the Christian Gospels. Within the American context, I would argue, it is “civil religion” that long provided the political theology that motivated and legitimated this aspiration. But how is civil religion different from religious nationalism, if at all?
In American Covenant, an earlier book written at a more optimistic moment, I drew a sharp distinction between “Christian nationalism” and “civil religion,” by defining each in terms of its intellectual sources. I argued that the American version of Christian nationalism combined the apocalypticism of Revelation with the “conquest narrative” of the Pentateuch, and that its fraternal twin, civil religion, conjoined prophetic calls for social justice with the political philosophy of civic republicanism. At the time, I believed, or at least hoped, that the tradition of civil religion might serve as a via media between Christian nationalism and radical secularism that could point a way forward beyond the “culture wars” that began in the 1980s.
In her essay, and in an earlier exchange, Molly Farneth expressed skepticism about this distinction. She worried that the boundary between religious nationalism and civil religion was more porous than I had allowed, that the progressive version of civil religion was losing its grip over the American imagination, and that a conservative version of civil religion which was barely distinguishable from religious nationalism was rapidly gaining ground. I worry that she is right. To be sure, Joe Biden’s religiously laden Inaugural Address and Amanda Gorman’s secular re-reading of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon show that the civil religious tradition is not quite dead yet and might still be revived again. Right now, though, it is clearly no match for WCN, which has grown stronger as it has become more white, less Christian and, of late, increasingly authoritarian. So long as white Christians were in the political majority, WCN could accommodate liberal democracy, assuming that demands for racial equality did not pose too great a threat to white “freedom.” No more.
Of course, as Darren Dochuk notes, and as I argue in American Babylon, we should not be entirely surprised by the authoritarian turn on the Christian right. Christian Scripture is rife with monarchical imagery, and sacred kingship has been the default form of political rule for most of Christian history. That some self-proclaimed “prophets” would compare Donald Trump to King Cyrus was only to be expected. And yet, as I explain in a forthcoming essay in The Hedgehog Review, there is also something different about the strange cult that has grown up around the former President. It is more akin to the pre-Christian tradition of divine monarchy than the Christian tradition of sacred monarchy.
Christianity and the other “world religions” that emerged during the Axial Age challenged the tradition of divine kingship. They were premised on a dualistic distinction between an immanent (“worldly”) and transcendent (“otherworldly”) realm. Earlier religions were not dualist in this way; they were radically immanentist. There was no sharp distinction between gods and men, but rather a continuum. There was one world, and it was filled with persons and “metapersons,” visible and invisible, material and immaterial. In such a world, Kings were not just “like” gods; they were gods. Far from being “disenchanted,” the post-Christian world that we are now entering is re-enchanted, as indeed is contemporary Christianity itself. The boundaries between religion and magic and Christianity and occultism, so heavily policed during the modern era, are as porous as those between fringe and mainstream culture. So it is perhaps no surprise that the default form of political rule in the immanentist cultures of the pre-Christian era should have renewed appeal in the neo-immanentist culture of the post-Christian era.
As Paul Dafydd Jones notes in his essay, for those of us still committed to some form of democracy—liberal, social or something else—the authoritarian turn is deeply worrying. What, if anything, can be done to defend democracy against its present-day detractors? For American Christians who are small-d democrats, one of the challenges is to develop and defend a democratic political theology. They might look first of all to Augustinian tradition, which contains ample resources for this task. Augustine’s own critiques of the Constantinian Christianity of late Imperial Rome apply with equal force to the Trumpian Christianism of late imperial America. In the secular age that follows Christ’s ministry, the worldly and heavenly cities are to remain separate, and Christian rulers should not attempt to merge them. Faithful Christians must resist the Constantinian temptation.
Secular progressives, for their part, might do well to revisit the work of Cold War liberals such as Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron. Chastened by the battle with totalitarianism, they abandoned their aspirations for political utopia and settled for social peace instead. But it will not be enough to develop new doctrines of democracy or to revive old ones. Democracy is not just a doctrine, after all; it is also a practice or, in John Dewey’s phrase, “a mode of associated living.” But as Molly Farneth rightly notes, the dominant modes of association today are more Weberian than Tocquevillian. The old “schools of democracy” that taught active citizenship and civic engagement have mostly been shuttered and replaced by new schools of meritocracy that teach free riding and self-promotion. That is the real American carnage.
Philip Gorski is a Professor of Sociology at Yale University.
February 10, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final response to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
How did we get here? How did the “elective affinity” between Christianity and democracy in the United States devolve into antagonism and antipathy – so much so that the political identity of swathes of the population is now defined by racist grievance, persecution complexes, and a drive to “save” America from the results of a free and fair election?
The temptation to answer these questions with the invocation of a single name, accompanied by denunciations of craven complicity, is well known to many. But it is a temptation that ought to be resisted, and Philip Gorski’s American Babylon shows us why that is so. On one level – and, I think, sotto voce, but all the more effectively for that – this book offers an indirect rebuke to those who favor performative indignation to careful historical and sociological reflection. On another level, and more substantively, American Babylon explains why the precariousness of American democracy is less a bug in the system, and more a deeply embedded feature.
One part of Gorski’s argument is that a positive relationship between Christianity and democracy should never be taken for granted. Experiments in collective self-government have always been hit-and-miss affairs, dependent on local conditions, and whenever democratic values and processes have taken root, they have typically been hamstrung by a host of exclusionary qualifications. That was the case in ancient Greece and medieval Europe; that has been and is the case in the United States too, no matter the self-aggrandizing boosterism that sometimes surrounds talk of democracy. And Christian support for modern liberal democratic values and processes has been far more inconstant than we care to admit. The balance of recent historical evidence is just as likely to yield a negative as a positive answer to the question, “Is Christianity democratic?”
Another part of Gorski’s argument is that Tocqueville’s optimistic vision of American Christians’ promotion of moral unity, progress, equality, and church/state disaffiliation is not a part that speaks for the whole. A bundle of reinforcing dynamics, internal to twentieth- and twenty-first century Protestant Christianity, have made sure of that. The collapse of the mainline Protestant establishment, along with the secularization of postmillennial religious energies, deprived liberal democracy of a powerful support system. The decline of small, democratically governed churches (what Philipp Jakob Spener called collegia pietatis being, Gorski supposes, collegia democratiae) and the rise of megachurches has had a similarly deleterious effect. Add to that the vigorous accreditation of white nationalism as a live option for Christian identity and a number of dispiriting local factors – well-funded media outlets that generate and amplify far-right talking points, a wealth gap that has widened to scandalous proportions, the growing fact of climate anxiety, intensified legislative assaults on voting access, etc. – and it seems entirely possible that the elective affinity between US Christianity and democracy will soon be a remnant of the past.
An obvious question, then, arises as soon as Gorski’s book comes to an end. Is there a way back? Is there a way to restore the elective affinity between Christianity and representative democracy, with the former lending support and credibility to the latter? Or, depressingly, should the gloominess that characterized the conclusion to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism now be transposed in a new key? Ought we to suppose that the “iron cage” that Weber discerned has given way to a wider captivity, one that stymies the “rebirth of old ideas and ideals” while giving late modern capitalism free rein to exploit workers and wreak destruction on the planet?
Given the coherence and persuasiveness of Gorski’s analysis, it is difficult to feel optimistic about the future, and it is easy to imagine pessimistic questions returning pessimistic answers. At the least, there does not seem to be much standing in the way of an entrenchment of antidemocratic instincts among many white Protestants, especially those who gather under the banner of evangelicalism. There seems little reason, for instance, to bank on a resurgence of liberal Protestantism as an advocate for democracy. The institutions and the good will might be there, along with some desire to overturn a multitude of sins with respect to race and sex/gender. But the numbers and the moral authority are not. The return of the churches as collegia democratiae also seems unlikely. The corporatization of Christianity, and along with it the resurgent political clout of weirdly coiffed megachurch ministers, continues apace; what was once a “vast network of ecumenical Christianity” amounts now to a “scattered archipelago of autonomous congregations” (71), some of which have turned far-right extremism into a selling point. Meanwhile, the fateful alliance of white evangelicals with Catholic conservatives, nourished by apocalyptic premillennialism and an outsized preoccupation with limiting women’s reproductive rights, shows every sign of going from strength to strength.
Weberian and Gorskian gloom notwithstanding, though, some chinks of light complicate the nighttime of American Babylon. One strikes me as especially important:
“It is very possible that the future of American Christianity will be written by the rag-tag bands of the religious center and left, who may share the religious right’s opposition to abortion” – I am not sure about this, but let it slide – “but marry it with commitments to social justice, racial inclusion, ‘creature care,’ and acceptance of gay marriage. Whether they do so will also depend on whether secular progressives embrace them as allies or continue to attack them as enemies of secularism” (99).
It is exactly here that I want to know more. If Gorski is correct about the captivity of much of American Christianity, and if the signal contribution of American Babylon is to compel us to inhabit and worry over that captivity, then at some point we need to dust ourselves off and chart a path forward. We need to envisage modes of Christian witness that support liberal democracy in novel ways. We need to imagine and realize a counterpoint to our current, antidemocratic moment – no matter what happens this year, next year, in the presidential race of 2024, and beyond.
So: What would resistance look like? What would an effective, pro-democratic, religious center/left entail? Would it draw inspiration from the civil rights movement, a refurbished US liberalism, Scandinavian social democracy (with an added ecological dimension), an American brand of “blue Labour” localism – or would it combine elements of each? Would it directly confront the current iteration of the “paranoid style” in US politics, or would it focus on the development of its own, non-reactive narratives? Most importantly, how might this bloc dispose itself as a credible (and thus not supine) ally to “secular progressives,” a growing group who run the gamut from old-school democratic socialists to unionized sex workers, disaffected political moderates, and never-Trumpers? What kinds of rhetoric, what kinds of ecclesial, ecumenical, and political organization, what kinds of relationships, what kinds of institutions could support the marriage towards which Gorski gestures? And what kind of theology is needed to keep the knot tied?
I am aware that these are oversized questions, the likes of which exceed the ken of any author. I pose them with foreboding, for I cannot quite imagine how they would be answered in ways that give me much hope that we will be drawn out of the mess that we find ourselves in. But that does not diminish their urgency. If “democracies tend to die slowly and peacefully at the hands of their own leaders” (115), a near-fatal cut may already have been made. The question now is whether we can staunch the flow, lest American democracy bleed out in the next few years, and those of us who believe in Christianity and democracy are left with little more than “the ghost of dead religious beliefs.”
Paul Dafydd Jones is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project.
February 9, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Robert Bellah’s classic essay “Civil Religion in America” argues that there is, in the United States, a kind of political religion that “exists alongside [but is] rather clearly differentiated from” Christianity. This civil religion involves beliefs and symbols that are often familiar to Christians – ideas about sin and grace, a Promised Land, prophets and martyrs – and it employs them in the construction of a national narrative and a set of practices intended to generate social cohesion among a diverse people.
In previous work, Philip Gorski has considered the intellectual lineage of this American civil religion, identifying among its influences covenant theology and civic republicanism. Covenant theology holds that there is a relationship and set of promises between God and God’s chosen people; in American civil religion, covenant theology informs both beliefs about America’s special status among nations and practices of prophetic critique that hold Americans to their end of the deal – that encourage them to uphold, that is, their professed ideals.
Civic republicanism, meanwhile, is a political philosophical tradition that holds that freedom is best understood as security from domination and that the health of the polis depends on the cultivation of political virtues among citizens. Gorski argues that this intellectual lineage is distinct from that of religious nationalism – distinct, that is, from a commitment to align Christianity and the nation-state in a religio-political conception of peoplehood. Unlike religious nationalism, on his account, civil religion is supposed to be capacious enough to include people of multiple religions and none, and to allow room for disagreement and dissent. In fact, among its habits and virtues are supposed to be such things as tolerance and forbearance in the face of objectionable difference.
Gorski’s distinction between civil religion and religious nationalism is conceptually useful, but as a practical and historical matter, they have never been easy to disentangle. This entanglement is the backdrop to the story that Gorski tells in American Babylon. Civil religion has been a battleground on which democrats and anti-democrats have struggled over the values and ideals that Americans should take and treat as sacred. These struggles have been concerned with exactly what American’s religion is or ought to be, which habits and virtues are proper to such a religion, and who is included within and excluded from its fold.
Understood in light of these debates, white conservative outrage at Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the National Anthem or at the removal of confederate statues from public spaces aren’t only political matters, but also religious ones. They are about what’s sacred in an American civil religion and who gets to decide. Such outrage is part of an effort to tie America’s civil religion ever more closely to a white Christian nationalist politics that cares little about non-domination or democratic virtue. Insofar as the religious nationalists have gained the upper hand among white evangelicals, the result has been a conflation of civil religion and Christian nationalism, jettisoning civic republicanism and shrugging at the idea of democratic virtue.
This shrug – the apparent irrelevance of democratic habits and virtues to the religious nationalists – is particularly striking to me. What’s happened to democratic virtue? As Gorski describes the changing landscape of American Christianity, he notes a shift in Protestant church membership from small, relatively democratic churches to professionally managed mega-churches. He suggests that the former were places where laypeople were involved in the governance of their communities; they learned to be citizens, in part, in church. In the latter, by contrast, laypeople are consumers of a slick religious product. Gorski writes that “to say that mega-churches are (internally) un-democratic is not to say that they are (externally) anti-democratic. They can be of course. A churchgoer who grows accustomed to a spectatorial form of worship led by a rich, combative, and charismatic pastor perched upon a distant stage may well come to prefer a spectatorial form of politics led by a rich, combative, and charismatic politician on their television screen” (73). Mega-churches, Gorski suggests, train people in the habits of consumers, rather than the virtues of citizens.
But of course, such a shift is not unique to the white evangelicals Gorski focuses on in American Babylon. Most of us spend more and more of our time in bureaucratic, professionally-managed spaces: attending mega-churches, shopping in big box stores, teaching and learning “to the test,” and entertaining ourselves with content delivered to us by algorithms. The schools of democratic habits and virtues are few and far between. And while I’m certainly worried about the vocal anti-democrats among American Christians, I worry, too, about the rest of us, whether we have or can come to cultivate the habits and dispositions that we might need for sustaining attention, tolerating conflict, building coalitions, and practicing fortitude in the long and slow and sometimes boring work of democracy and the struggle against domination.
Molly Farneth is an Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Haverford College.
February 8, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Philip Gorski’s American Babylon considers Christianity and democracy as “complex social structures” (8) that have influenced and transformed one another through historical encounters and collisions to give rise to multiple theological, cultural, and political configurations. Gorski begins by considering how democracy in its various forms (republican, representative, liberal, and social) relates to different expressions of religion—to show, for example, why some forms of Protestantism are conducive to liberal but not social democracy, or why American evangelical Christianity is not inherently opposed to democracy. He surveys the complicated politics and political theology of the Bible demonstrating, among other things, how it is possible for contemporary Christian nationalism to be reconciled with the imperial theology of Eusebius, and for liberal democracy to have certain resonances with Augustine’s theological thought; his survey also shows how some Catholic thinkers charted a middle way in their theological approaches to democracy while others moved in “a decidedly more authoritarian direction” (41). From this airplane view of elective affinities between Christianity and democracy in Western history, Gorski zooms in on the complex trajectories of both Christianity and democracy in the history of the US. What connects the two parts of the book is the argument that “there are no constants in political chemistry” because the elective affinities between Christianity and democracy change over time (97).
As a short, 132-page book that is theoretically precise and historically subtle, American Babylon is a true feat of historical sociology. It offers a nuanced yet accessible account of how we got where we are today—the populist phase of the culture wars in which American Christians who affirm strong collective attachments often do so in the name of a “white Christian nation,” and Americans who confess progressive Christian or secular visions of public life are often implicated in modernist, secularist, or class biases toward those who do not share their cosmopolitan or meritocratic values. It is here, at the end of the book, where I want to begin my engagement with the author: at the point at which Gorski wonders not only how we got where we are, but also where we might be going. I want to propose that this is also an important scholarly crossroad, a point at which we should carefully probe the long-accepted approaches to the relationship among Christianity, democracy, and nationalism, and consider some new, less charted, and possibly more productive modes of thinking about it.
In the last chapter of his book, in his discussion of the alliance between white evangelical Christians and Trump, Gorski stresses that this phenomenon is driven not by race, class, or religion alone, but by the combination of all three. At the same time, what emerges at the heart of the story about the evangelicalism-Trumpism coalition is “white Christian nationalism” (WCN)—the term that some authors have recently used in unhelpful ways, but which in Gorski’s treatment acquires both conceptual clarity and historical perspective. And, precisely because I concur with much of the argument Gorski advances in this part of his book, one statement in that account gave me pause: the idea that white Christian nationalism in the United States is “a genuine puzzle” because Christianity is “a universalistic religion” that “makes no racial distinctions,” has “followers of all colors,” and “tells us that all human beings are God’s children, made in His image, and Jesus died for all sinners” (108). In what follows, I want to propose several reasons why we should want to move beyond the idea of the 21st century American instantiation of white Christian nationalism as a puzzle because Christianity is a universalistic humanist religion.
As a student of religion normatively committed to deep pluralism, I appreciate the theological arguments for the idea that Christianity’s universalistic character, even essence, can be a powerful tool against racist and nativist configurations of Christian nationalism. As a historical sociologist, however, I cannot but point to the problems entailed in an account of Christianity as a this-worldly humanist project of inclusion. This is an account suggested in Gorski’s statement quoted above; it is also an account of Christian humanism that does not acknowledge the dark sides of that project—the deployment of Christian humanism to dehumanize the indigenous peoples during the Western European colonial and imperial conquests, or the twentieth century Catholic theology of personhood and the accompanying political endeavors that ascribed dignity to Catholics only, to mention only two trajectories. As Edward Said powerfully demonstrated in his last book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, if the history of universalistic humanisms tells us anything, it is that humanist ideas grounded both acts of exclusion and of inclusion, of enslavement and of liberation. Recognizing such complexities as also constitutive of Christianity’s universalistic humanist impetus would not diminish its forcefulness in rejecting the ideology of white Christian nationalism; it would simply underscore that no expression of Christianity is ever innocent of history or above it.
On the other hand, if the history of Christianity and nationalism reveals anything—a history that involves, among others, the role of the Deutsche Christen in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the place of Christian theology in configuring the Afrikaner racist nationalist ideology in South Africa, and the complicity of Christian leaders in shaping the nationalist ideologies in former Yugoslavia—it is the multiplicity of forms this relationship can take as well as their frequency. On my reading, the question at the heart of our inquiry should not be “How is it possible for Christianity to be linked to nationalism?”, but “Why are we still surprised when those connections appear?” Or, to add an even more provocative note: in light of the sheer number of historical instances in which Christianity was associated with various expressions of nationalism, why should we think that these cases are more about nationalism and less about Christianity? Aren’t such instances also part of the complex, complicated, and changeable politics and political theology of Christianity, which Gorski himself so eloquently examines?
As a scholar of religion and collective identity, I concur with Gorski’s commitment to case-by-case analysis of religious actors as they reveal their agency in shaping the narratives and politics of particular group attachments. It is in this sense—in relation to the singularities of various local stories and histories—that I see any religio-national phenomenology as a puzzle. But it is precisely because of this empirical perspective that I want to end my response with an invitation—that we do not a priori relegate Christianities linked to national attachments to the domain of intolerance and exclusion, but instead consider collectivistic Christianities in all of their manifestations. Ours is a moment, it seems to me, that compels us to sharpen our conceptual and analytic tools so that they can distinguish between those configurations of Christian and national identities that seek to exclude or abolish everyone perceived as other, and those that are conducive to democratic pluralism—those collectivistic Christianities that can powerfully reject the challenges of the populist anti-pluralist politics by grounding the most noble of our universalistic humanist impulses in our attachments to concrete political communities.
Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college, and a Senior Fellow of the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics.
February 7, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Philip Gorski’s American Babylon elucidates the relationship between Christianity and democracy in Western history. In its main text and footnotes, the book uses social scientific studies of racism in the United States to argue that a dissonance between an ostensible waning of racial prejudice among Americans generally and the recalcitrance of racial prejudice in what Gorski defines as White Christian Nationalism (WCN) is crucial to the contemporary American political dilemma. The book therefore raises questions about how race matters for the theorization of Western politics, and how theoretical approaches to race matter for the current crisis of democracy.
These questions bring me to one of my favorite teaching memories. In the first meeting of a course on black studies that I taught in Stateville prison outside of Chicago, the students, incarcerated black men, dissected the contours of Jared Sexton’s idea, from his 2012 essay “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,” that “blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory.” That conversation rekindled the excitement I felt as a kid mining the rows of CDs at the HMV on 125th Street in Harlem for classic “boom bap” hip-hop from the late 1980s and early 1990s, finding Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader or Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, going home, playing the albums, and basking in their marveling, like the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen before them, that black people subjected to racialized enclosures can conceptualize blackness as the unfurling of limitless theory—about divinity, knowledge, the universe, nothingness—which they can use to understand their enclosure.
The recent frothing over critical race theory also reminds me of that prison classroom conversation. The anti-CRT thrust on one hand and old school hip-hop and new school black studies on the other attest to the importance of blackness as a matter for theory in a similar way. For both, the idea of blackness as theory problematizes the intermingling of Christianity and democracy in Western politics in general, not just in White Christian Nationalism. For both, the idea of blackness as a matter for theory indicates that White Christian Nationalism is not a perversion of a Puritan ideal but a variation on the main theme of American politics.
This is not to downplay the specific dangers of White Christian Nationalism. Rather, it is to say that thinking theoretically about blackness and race points toward how the intellectual history presented in American Babylon can illuminate the continuity between WCN and, say, the liberal Christian reformisms that preceded and then aligned with the New Deal and its successors. For example, the book mentions that the New Deal accommodated Jim Crow by excluding agricultural workers (the New Deal also excluded domestic workers—predominantly black women—and included black agricultural workers in ways that reproduced the antiblack socioeconomic order of rural Jim Crow). Yet antiblack racism also shaped how New Deal programs in liberal Northern cities with powerful liberal Christian establishments exacerbated racial inequality. It was the long New Deal order that provoked KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions to rap on the title track of BDP’s 1987’s LP Criminal Minded that “our lives have been so uprooted,” conjuring the neighborhood upheaval wrought by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, with which, as my aunt would say, “they tore up the Bronx,” fostering the conditions for BDP’s and hip-hop’s emergence. Mass incarceration is as much a legacy of liberalism and the New Deal as it is of the Confederacy and Jim Crow.
Thinking theoretically about blackness and race illuminates how the commingling of Christianity and democracy has enabled antiblack logics beyond the borders of de jure white supremacy to animate the political present beyond the ballyhoo of Jim Crow’s evangelical dauphins. Thus, reading American Babylon together with theoretical approaches to blackness and race can clarify the relationship between White Christian Nationalism and the ways that antiblackness and racism have structured the long development of Western politics.
Kai Parker is an Assistant Professor of African American Religious History at the University of Virginia.