A Return to Civil Religion?

Yale sociologist Philip Gorski has written a thoughtful essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) on the need to accommodate both secular and religious values in American politics. Both secular and religious Americans should give up their maximalist claims, he argues, in favor of “civil religion,” a concept most closely associated in the United States with sociologist Robert Bellah:

What is needed, then, is a mediating tradition that allows room for both religious and political values, without subordinating one to the other. Such a tradition does exist. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah sought to describe it almost a half century ago in his famous article on “Civil Religion in America.” It comprises two main intellectual strands: civic republicanism and prophetic religion. Where liberalism emphasizes individual autonomy and a free market, republicanism is more concerned with civic virtue and participatory government. Consequently it is less wary of religion. Where religious conservatism stresses individual salvation and personal accountability, prophetic religion emphasizes human flourishing and collective responsibility. Consequently it is less wary of the state.

It’s an interesting idea, but I wonder whether civil religion would really do the job Gorski asks of it. At an abstract level, civil religion may resolve tensions between individualists and communitarians, between secular and religious Americans. Once one gets down to details, though, it’s not so clear. How would civil religion resolve the fight over the contraception mandate, for example? I can imagine a persuasive civic-republican argument in favor of the mandate as a means of ensuring the full participation of women in public life. But I can imagine a persuasive argument the other way, too: civic republicanism might disfavor the mandate, since the mandate pressures some citizens to violate their consciences as the price for participating in public life. And what about the prophetic-religion angle? Couldn’t one make “prophetic” arguments both ways as well? (H/t: Mark Berner)

Back to CLR Forum

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: