February 4, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
In American Babylon, Philip Gorski has done the near impossible: marshal in one hundred tidy pages two millennia of political thought to explain American democracy’s current crisis. Though he insists “this is not another book about Donald Trump,” he captures this politico and his politics, and their religious affectations, with unmatched efficiency and depth. At a time when titillating Trump exposés hog space atop Amazon’s bestseller list, American Babylon stands out as a judicious think piece worth one’s care.
The book does indeed offer us more than a CliffsNotes guide to Trump mania. Gorski’s is a remarkably nuanced appraisal of the “complex relationship between Christian and democracy.” Answering those critics who see MAGA fundamentalists as proof that Christianity is anti-democratic at its core, Gorski points to numerous historical examples of healthy “proto-democratic currents within Western Christianity” that have long nurtured church and state. In response to those who celebrate the democratic DNA of American Christianity and paint it as a bulwark of liberty, Gorski cautions that as of late it is authoritarianism that has crept into and emanated from this nation’s pulpits and pews. Gorski sees the world in illuminating grays, shunning either-or scenarios.
It is in that vein that he probes a particularly vexing dynamic of recent American religion, one that my own scholarship touches upon (hence my focus): evangelical Protestantism’s jettisoning of a spirit of democracy heralded by 19th century social commenter Alexis de Tocqueville for a culture-warring rage that seeks to divide and conquer. How is it, Gorski asks, that one of the progenitors of Tocqueville’s democratic America—evangelicalism—became captive to Manichean fears of “mortal enemies” (liberals, humanists, globalists) and the foreign other, racist and anti-state animus, toxic masculinity and militarism, a persecution complex, and ultimately the authoritarian white nationalism of Donald Trump?
Gorski walks readers through some of the transitions in national life that fueled evangelicalism’s turn from Tocquevillian to Trumpian politics, and a decline of Christian democracy. There is far too much to cover in my allotted space, but a few elements of Gorski’s concise summation beg for a bit more attention.
My first curiosity has to do with the ways a Tocquevillian reading of American Christianity circa 1835 can blur as much as clarify the nature of evangelicalism in the Frenchman’s time as well as our own. Gorski’s analysis of Tocqueville’s optimistic reading of American Christianity and democracy’s innate “complementarity” is sharp. Yes, he notes, a common “moral unity,” belief in social progress and human equality, and commitment to the separation of church helped make religion and republicanism a dynamic and potent union in the new nation. Yet, as Gorski cautions, in his enthusiasm for the American democratic experiment, Tocqueville also suffered from blind-spots that prevented him from seeing its underbelly: Christianity’s justification of slavery, for instance, as well as its willingness to “accommodate hierarchy and monarchy.”
The latter point deserves even more emphasis, I’d suggest, for American evangelicals—those purported agents of democratization—have always been “monarchists at heart.” Here I’m quoting a former Christian Right operative whose casual admission speaks volumes about a movement that has long been enamored of anointed authority. Awash in a sea of disestablishment freedom and faith, evangelicals in Tocqueville’s day, as in in ours, looked to a savior for salvation, then to charismatic sages in the pulpits to guide their way; the constant yearning for strongmen in politics, a “King Cyrus” of old, has always been a natural extension of such desire.
All the more in recent decades, it seems, raising a second point. Gorski offers a four-step chronicle of the “process of estrangement” that has thrust Christianity and democracy to the “brink of separation” and evangelicals into the Trump camp. Citing the decline of liberal Protestantism, erosion of small (and rise of mega) churches, collapse of a civic-minded ecumenical center and rise of a hyper-partisan sectarian right as three contributing developments, he highlights the “transformation of Christian postmillennialism into secular progressivism” and concomitant ascent of an “anti-democratic, anti-politics” Christian premillennialism as yet a fourth phase in the devolution of Tocquevillean ideals.
It may also be worth noting the more recent ascent of new Reformed theology that weaponizes apocalypticism to more sinister degrees by melding the bloody bleakness of premillennialism with a post-millennial charge to claim dominion and recreate society in preparation for Christ’s return. This “Reformed Reconstructionism” abandons the steady, sunny march toward the millennium and instead embraces a violent end-time progression that will culminate in true believers’ takeover of the state. Although unattainable in their extremes, Old Testament precepts of theocracy nevertheless filter through the grass-roots ranks and religio-political precincts of today’s evangelical constituency, providing further justification for the kings and kingmakers, moral warts be damned, to seize power at any cost, execute God’s law with total impunity, and govern with iron fists and uncompromising resolve.
A final curiosity triggered by Gorski’s exemplary book relates to the shifting structural features of modern evangelicalism—those, for instance, related to its corporatization (witnessed in the megachurch) at the cost of organic community and the common good (once evidenced in the small, local parish). Gorski diligently unpacks the theology and theological trends that molded 21st century evangelicalism into something it wasn’t in the 19th century. What born-again believers have believed over time matters if we want to make sense of their movement’s lurch to the right, he implies.
Rightly so; yet how as much as what evangelicals have thought over time matters too. In a manner Tocqueville couldn’t have imagined possible, at the turn of the twentieth century evangelical Protestants revolutionized the way they processed and manufactured knowledge and engaged the marketplace of ideas. More than a fundamentalist-modernist clash over historicism, the totalizing crisis of belief that unfolded at this time resulted in evangelicals’ assumption of a “taxonomic” mindset, which, as scholars like Brendan Pietsch have argued, prioritized applied over social and natural science, practical over abstract wisdoms, and—in churchly, economic, and political realms—the engineer and executive over the academic and polished statesman. Amid this ferment, and in the face of an ascendant order of intellectual and political elite, common-sense pragmatism went creedal; spurred on by their populist impatience and low-church instrumentalism, evangelicals proceeded to construct their own infrastructure of knowledge to spread their truth about the world.
One obvious byproduct of this endeavor was the construction of an alternative media system we see flourishing today. Tocqueville’s own view of print media revealed ambiguity in his thinking: while he decried the pettiness and malice of the press, he also deemed the fourth estate essential to a healthy democracy. Were he alive today he might second-guess his tepid conclusion and deem popular media more enemy than friend of democracy; at the very least he would have to confront head-on the destructive potentials of media run amok.
Gorski himself doesn’t measure this factor in the fracturing of church and civil society, and in the triumph of totalitarian thinking over Christian democratic aims. I’d certainly welcome more evaluation of this sort. While revisiting some of my own work on evangelical conservatism recently I noticed (and regretted) the lack of sustained attention to Christian media and the power of alternative communications in the creation of the Goldwater-to-Trump religious/Republican right. What I approached as merely functional in the rise of the right has proved to be constitutive.
Thanks again to Philip Gorski for offering such a brilliant yet accessible and impassioned study of Christianity and democracy, evangelicalism and the Trump moment. While his parting calls (and blueprint) for something better after Trump suggest a level of optimism I don’t share, I join him in pleading for readers (evangelical ones especially) to thoughtfully reexamine the path that got us here.
Darren Dochuk is the Andrew V. Tackes College Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.