Q & A

Can the American Civil Religion Bridge the Partisan Divide?

In a forthcoming book, Yale sociologist Philip Gorski argues that we can break our paralyzing partisan deadlock by drawing on the American civil religion, the set of civic values passed down from the nation’s founding. Gorski talks with Yale Insights about the civil religion and two competing national narratives—and what they mean for contemporary politics.


Q: What is the American civil religion? Why is it important?

The American civil religion is a way of thinking about the American project and what its highest ideals are. I think about it as an evolving tradition that goes back to the foundings, to the founding of Puritan New England and to the American Revolution, also to the re-founding of the American republic following the Civil War. I think its four core values are freedom, equality, solidarity, and inclusion.

And I think a full understanding of the American project requires us to attend to all of those ideals and not to imagine that America is only about one thing—that it's only about freedom, for example, or that it's only about inclusion. And I think often when we lose our bearings politically, it's because we lose track of these four pillars of the American project.

Q: Do you see your book as being a description of how Americans think about our ideals or a proposal for how we should be thinking differently?

It's a bit of both. It's not a value-free or purely scientific work, if such a thing as value-free science is even possible. But it's also not just my personal opinion. It is an argument about what the American project means based on close attention to American political and intellectual history. But it is very much intended as an intervention into contemporary public debate, which I think has been too much dominated by other understandings that I call religious nationalism and radical secularism.

Q: Is the civil religion something that exists in our intuitive understandings of what it means to be Americans?

I think that's exactly right. It's something that we know, that we recognize, that we often find moving. But we may not always be able to explain to others or to ourselves exactly where it comes from or why it's meaningful to us. But it is something I think we pick up very early on. We pick it up by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We pick it up by listening to Martin Luther King speeches.

We pick it up by reading the Gettysburg Address. We pick it up by reciting the preambles to the Declaration or the Constitution. Those are all, as it were, part of the sacred scriptures of the American civil religion. And we may not know this, but they're all interrelated. So Martin Luther King is evoking Lincoln's second inaugural is invoking the Declaration of Independence. As Lincoln eloquently put it once, they touch on the mystic chords of our collective memory.

Q: You mentioned two threads that are competing with the civil religion, religious nationalism on the one hand and radical secularism on the other hand. In your book you say that they both put their own point of view at the center of the founding of the country and that that's not accurate. Do you think that historical authenticity in this discussion is important in and of itself?

Yes, the question of what the American project is about is partly a question of why the United States was founded. And this is one reason why debates about the American project so often turn on competing interpretations of the American founding. And the reason I engage in that debate is because I think both the religious nationalist and radical secularist interpretations of the founding are wrong.

I don't think America was founded as a Christian nation. I also don't think it was founded as a secular republic. It was founded as something different and that's in between those two things, what I call a prophetic republic. So it draws heavily on this prophetic tradition within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures about covenanting and social justice and the strong not oppressing the weak.

But it also draws heavily on this republican tradition that goes back to Greece and Rome and comes to us via Renaissance Italy and the English commonwealth, which talks about the American project as a political project of creating a certain kind of democratic political community which attends to the common good.

Q: How do you see the tension between these three threads being played out in politics today?

I think that it's been very destructive. I think that the current dynamic—the dynamic that's been in play ever since I've been paying any attention to politics, which is a pretty long time now—has been between religious nationalists and radical secularists. I think these are both minority groups. I don't think that they represent the views of most Americans. But I think that they are very well organized, very well funded, and very loud. And so they have been able to dominate and define our civic conversation now for a very long time.

And this has led to increasing polarization and to increasing gridlock and has not only made it impossible for us to move forward as a country, but it's made it impossible for us to keep from falling backward as a country, simply even do the most basic things like repair our roads and bridges. The current dynamic is a very very destructive one that really does endanger the United States, and part of getting out of this dynamic is finding what I call the vital center again, which is defined by the civil religious tradition.

Not everybody is going to agree about the meaning of that civic creed, about what freedom is, what equality is, what inclusion is, what the common good is. But if we could simply get to the point where we agree that those are the things that we should care about, that the country was founded on, then I think some forward progress would be possible instead of simply having this argument about cultural issues.

Q: Do you think that there's a version of this debate going on within the Republican Party?

Yes, I think that the faction within the Republican Party that embraces religious nationalism has grown. It's grown to the extent that people who probably aren't religious nationalists have to pretend to be. I'm thinking, for example, about some of Mitt Romney's rather awkward performances in 2012, trying to pretend that he was some kind of big time American exceptionalist. Embracing some version of American exceptionalism has become kind of a litmus test.

The other thing that I've seen happening in the more recent race is that there are two competing versions of religious nationalism now in the Republican party, one that's more nationalist than religious and one that's more religious than nationalist. The more nationalist than religious one is Donald Trump. The more religious than nationalist one is Ben Carson.

I think that there are people within the Republican Party who would adhere to a right-of-center version of the civic creed that I'm articulating. Mine is left of center. But I have plenty of right-of-center friends whom I learn a lot from and enjoy debating with. But I think it's very difficult for those people to simply say what they actually think instead of pretending to be some kind of American exceptionalist.

And I think that this is one of the big internal crises that's going on in the Republican Party. And that until those right-of-center, civic creed people are able to regain some degree of voice and legitimacy within the Republican party, it's going to be bad not just for the Republican party but for all of us.

Q: Radical secularism doesn’t seem to have the same kind of representation in Washington. Do you see it as contributing to the gridlock in more subtle ways?

I do. I don't think that it has the kind of obvious influence, say, within the Congress that American exceptionalism does. But I do think that it has a quite a bit of influence within the American academy and American cultural elites and that this is part of what a lot of conservative Christians are reacting against. When they say that America was founded as a Christian nation, I think a lot of them don't really mean it. They’re just saying, "Look, a lot of the people who first founded the United States were Christian.” That Christian values and precepts played a big role in the political and cultural development in the United States.

People who insist that that's not true aren’t giving it a fair accounting. I think there's a sense of being condescended to, talked down to. And one of the unfortunate practical effects is that it makes it more difficult for religious and secular people to ally with one another around common causes because you're just simply not supposed to do that.

Q: People sometimes suggest that capitalism will lead to an end to all of these debates. Do you think that in some way, capitalism provides a fourth thread that's competing?

This is not a central theme of the book. The book is really about religion and politics. But I'm skeptical about the idea that markets can solve all of our problems or that capitalism can solve all of our problems. That's only going to be true if you really believe that markets are completely self-regulating, which I happen to think is not correct and which I think increasing numbers of economists and economic historians think is incorrect. That in order for capitalism to work, there has to be rule of law. There have to be some kinds of constraints put on markets.

And how is that going to happen? Well, that's going to happen through politics. And in order to have a functioning political community, you need some degree of democracy, of solidarity, of dialog. And those are the things that are precisely endangered.

Q: Do you think that part of what is driving this increased polarization is a reaction to a more pluralistic country?

Yes, I think that the kind of anger and vitriol that we see at the moment is partly due to increasing pluralism. But it's also pluralism combined with increasing inequality. There are a lot of people who feel like their country has been taken away from them. They partly feel threatened by growing pluralism, and they partly feel threatened by downward mobility.

It is hard to deal with people who are different from you. It requires work. It's not easy. It can be uncomfortable. But that's what America is supposed to be about. We're supposed to show that that can work. And so I think people should buckle down and work a little bit harder at it.

I think a lot of the younger generation already is showing that you can make a lot of progress, not without fits and starts. When I look at my own children, they're a remarkably tolerant, open-minded, inclusive bunch. And so I have a certain amount of hope that, though it will be difficult, it's not impossible.

Interview conducted and edited by Ben Mattison. Photo: First-grade students at Public School 60 in Baltimore, June 1955. Richard Stacks/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images.

Professor of Sociology, Yale University