Democratic Virtue and the Fight for America’s Civil Religion | A Response by Molly Farneth

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.