No Way Back? | A Response by Paul Dafydd Jones

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.