Roundtable on American Babylon | Philip Gorski Responds

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.