In this podcast, Center Co-Directors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian reflect on the religious imagery in last month’s inauguration and how it fits within the American tradition of civil religion. They also ask whether the new administration reflects the rise of the Religious Left: a political coalition of progressive believers, including progressive Catholics like President Biden himself. How stable is that coalition? Listen in!
This month, Princeton University Press releases “American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present,” by Philip Gorski (Yale University). The publisher’s description follows:
Was the United States founded as a Christian nation or a secular democracy? Neither, argues Philip Gorski in American Covenant. What the founders actually envisioned was a prophetic republic that would weave together the ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. In this ambitious book, Gorski shows why this civil religious tradition is now in peril—and with it the American experiment.
Gorski traces the historical development of prophetic republicanism from the Puritan era to the present day. He provides close readings of thinkers such as John Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Hannah Arendt, along with insightful portraits of recent and contemporary religious and political leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Gorski shows how the founders’ original vision for America is threatened by an internecine struggle between two rival traditions, religious nationalism and radical secularism. Religious nationalism is a form of militaristic hyperpatriotism that imagines the United States as a divine instrument in the final showdown between good and evil. Radical secularists fervently deny the positive contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the American project and seek to remove all traces of religious expression from the public square. Gorski offers an unsparing critique of both, demonstrating how half a century of culture war has drowned out the quieter voices of the vital center.
American Covenant makes the compelling case that if we are to rebuild that vital center, we must recover the civil religious tradition on which the republic was founded.
In November, Yale University Press will release The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest by Walter A. McDougall (University of Pennsylvania). The publisher’s description follows:
A fierce critique of civil religion as the taproot of America’s bid for global hegemony
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter A. McDougall argues powerfully that a pervasive but radically changing faith that “God is on our side” has inspired U.S. foreign policy ever since 1776. The first comprehensive study of the role played by civil religion in U.S. foreign relations over the entire course of the country’s history, McDougall’s book explores the deeply infused religious rhetoric that has sustained and driven an otherwise secular republic through peace, war, and global interventions for more than two hundred years. From the Founding Fathers and the crusade for independence to the Monroe Doctrine, through World Wars I and II and the decades-long Cold War campaign against “godless Communism,” this coruscating polemic reveals the unacknowledged but freely exercised dogmas of civil religion that bind together a “God blessed” America, sustaining the nation in its pursuit of an ever elusive global destiny.
In June, the University Press of Kansas will release “God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right,” by Rebecca Barrett-Fox (Arkansas State University). The publisher’s description follows:
The congregants thanked God that they weren’t like all those hopeless people outside the church, bound for hell. So the Westboro Baptist Church’s Sunday service began, and Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a curious observer, wondered why anyone would seek spiritual sustenance through other people’s damnation. It is a question that piques many a witness to Westboro’s more visible activity—the “GOD HATES FAGS” picketing of funerals. In God Hates, sociologist Barrett-Fox takes us behind the scenes of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church. The first full ethnography of this infamous presence on America’s Religious Right, her book situates the church’s story in the context of American religious history—and reveals as much about the uneasy state of Christian practice in our day as it does about the workings of the Westboro Church and Fred Phelps, its founder.
God Hates traces WBC’s theological beliefs to a brand of hyper-Calvinist thought reaching back to the Puritans—an extreme Calvinism, emphasizing predestination, that has proven as off-putting as Westboro’s actions, even for other Baptists. And yet, in examining Westboro’s role in conservative politics and its contentious relationship with other fundamentalist activist groups, Barrett-Fox reveals how the church’s message of national doom in fact reflects beliefs at the core of much of the Religious Right’s rhetoric. Westboro’s aggressively offensive public activities actually serve to soften the anti-gay theology of more mainstream conservative religious activism. With an eye to the church’s protest at military funerals, she also considers why the public has responded so differently to these than to Westboro’s anti-LGBT picketing.
With its history of Westboro Baptist Church and its founder, and its profiles of defectors, this book offers a complex, close-up view of a phenomenon on the fringes of American Christianity—and a broader, disturbing view of the mainstream theology it at once masks and reflects.
This month, SUNY Press releases “Confucianism, A Habit of the Heart: Bellah, Civil Religion, and East Asia” edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe (City University of Hong Kong) and Sungmoon Kim (City University of Hong Kong). The publisher’s description follows:
Can Confucianism be regarded as a civil religion for East Asia? This book explores this question, bringing the insights of Robert Bellah to a consideration of various expressions of the contemporary Confucian revival. Bellah identified American civil religion as a religious dimension of life that can be found throughout US culture, but one without any formal institutional structure. Rather, this “civil” form of religion provides the ethical principles that command reverence and by which a nation judges itself. Extending Bellah’s work, contributors from both the social sciences and the humanities conceive of East Asia’s Confucian revival as a “habit of the heart,” an underlying belief system that guides a society, and examine how Confucianism might function as a civil religion in China, Korea, and Japan. They discuss what aspects of Confucian tradition and thought are being embraced; some of the social movements, political factors, and opportunities connected with the revival of the tradition; and why Confucianism has not traveled much beyond East Asia. The late Robert Bellah’s reflection on the possibility for a global civil religion concludes the volume.
From his “Petition of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery,” presented in the House of Representatives on February 12, 1790:
The memorial respectfully showeth,
That from a regard for the happiness of mankind, as association was formed several years since in this State, by a number of her citizens, of various religious denominations, for promoting the abolition of slavery, and for the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage. A just and acute conception of the true principles of liberty, as it spread through the land, produced accessions to their numbers, many friends to their cause, and a Legislative cooperation with their views, which, by the blessing of Divine Providence, have been successfully directed to the relieving from bondage a large number of their fellow-creatures of the African race. They have also the satisfaction to observe, that in consequence of that spirit of philanthropy and genuine liberty which is generally diffusing its beneficial influence, similar institutions are forming at home and abroad.
That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the Christian religion teaches us to believe, and the political creed of Americans fully coincides with the position.
Yesterday was the centenary anniversary of the beginning of World War I. On July 28, 1914, one month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the Austro-Hungarian empire made its first moves against Serbia. The Great War would end more than four years later.
This weekend, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was hosting a very fine exhibit of American World War I posters. I was struck by the powerful imagery of civil religion in many of them. Here are two exhorting the purchase of war bonds that stood out to me as particularly representative of the genre:
And this afternoon, to remember the War, Mark and I visited the Flag Pole Green in Queens, New York, which has this lovely memorial to the men of Queens who died in the War:
This review by Professor Cary Nederman of Professor Maurizio Viroli’s Redeeming the Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece is very interesting (h/t Matt Lister). I have not read Viroli’s book yet (saving it for the summer!), but his reading of Machiavelli–and in particular his interpretation of the famously perplexing Chapter 26 (“Exhortatio ad capessendam Italiam in liberatemque a barbaris vindicandam”)–makes a fine textualist case for a kind of civil religion in his work. Here, Machiavelli pleads for an Italian redeemer who–“favorita da Dio e dalla Chiesa” (“favored by God and the Church”)–will deliver Italy from its present troubles. The troubles are pretty bad: “sanza capo, sanza ordine, battuta, spogliata, lacera, corsa, e avessi sopportato d’ogni sorte ruina” (“without a head, without order, beaten, denuded, wounded, run down, and having sustained all manner of ruin”). Here’s a bit from the review concerning what Machiavelli had in mind concerning the divine agent who would unify Italy and redeem its national promise:
In contrast to most scholars, for whom Chapter 26 cannot be reconciled with the previous body of the text, Viroli insists that Machiavelli’s “Exhortation” represents the very crescendo of The Prince. How does Viroli arrive at such an unconventional reading?….His overarching insight, I take it, is that we ought to take Machiavelli at his word when he speaks of religious matters and, in particular, mentions the workings of God. The prevailing tendency, of course, has been to dismiss such references as reflective of either his impiety or his wicked sense of humor. On this important point, I believe Viroli to be largely correct. Scholars have all-too-often filtered their readings of Machiavelli through a set of preconceived notions or impressions of what they assume he was saying, according to his longstanding reputation, rather than what the text actually states. This does not mean that Machiavelli’s political thought lacks an underlying agenda, but rather that we must always commence our investigations by taking the words he wrote seriously and at face value….
In particular, Machiavelli’s invocation of prophetic wording in Chapter 26, according to Viroli, reflects the overarching purpose of The Prince: the call for a redeemer, presumably Lorenzo de’ Medici, to unify Italy in order to remove the foreign elements that have dominated its politics. Machiavelli says that such a redeemer is sanctioned by God, who has rendered the moment propitious for such action. Viroli insists that we must take Machiavelli at his word in this regard, rather than dismissing it as incompatible with the general message of The Prince.
That supposed “general message” helps us to grasp the sense in which Machiavelli may be characterized as a realist for Viroli. Specifically, Viroli asserts that Machiavelli adopts the stance of a “realist with imagination.” By this he means that Machiavelli perfectly well understood the situation of Italy as it existed in his own day; this is his “realist” dimension. Yet he posits that Machiavelli was also engaged in an imaginative way to change such reality by promoting a savior, a redeemer, capable of instituting the reforms necessary to transform the realities of his day. On Viroli’s account, Machiavelli pursued this agenda by mythologizing the great men of bygone times as well as some of his contemporaries. Thus, he mythologizes the redeemers whom he lauds in Chapters 6 and 26 — such as Moses, Cyrus and Theseus — as well as recent political figures such as Caterina Sforza and (especially) Cesare Borgia, both of whom he had encountered during his days in the Florentine civil service. Their deeds are transformed by him without regard to their actual behavior, for which Machiavelli has no use. Machiavelli’s realism, then, is not confined to an effort to analyze and explain political events and personalities, past and present, in the manner of a political scientist. Rather, he renders his favored subjects larger than life, with the purpose of exhorting the redeemer to aim at their example, even if he falls short.
Next month, the University of Southern Illinois Press will publish Lincoln and Religion, by Ferenc Morton Szasz (University of New Mexico – Deceased 2010) and Margaret Connell Szasz (University of New Mexico). The book addresses the role of prayer during Lincoln’s presidency as well as changes in Lincoln’s faith. The publisher’s description follows.
Abraham Lincoln’s faith has commanded more broad-based attention than that of any other American president. Although he never joined a denomination, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Spiritualists, Jews, and even atheists claim the sixteenth president as one of their own. In this concise volume, Ferenc Morton Szasz and Margaret Connell Szasz offer both an accessible survey of the development of Lincoln’s religious views and an informative launch pad for further academic inquiry. A singular key to Lincoln’s personality, especially during the presidential years, rests with his evolving faith perspective.
After surveying Lincoln’s early childhood as a Hard-Shell Baptist in Kentucky and Indiana, the authors chronicle his move from skepticism to participation in Episcopal circles during his years in Springfield, and, finally, after the death of son Eddie, to Presbyterianism. They explore Lincoln’s relationship with the nation’s faiths as president, the impact of his son Willie’s death, his adaptation of Puritan covenant theory to a nation at war, the role of prayer during his presidency, and changes in his faith as reflected in the Emancipation Proclamation and his state papers and addresses. Finally, they evaluate Lincoln’s legacy as the central figure of America’s civil religion, an image sharpened by his prominent position in American currency.
A closing essay by Richard W. Etulain traces the historiographical currents in the literature on Lincoln and religion, and the volume concludes with a compilation of Lincoln’s own words about religion.
In assessing the enigma of Lincoln’s Christianity, the authors argue that despite his lack of church membership, Lincoln lived his life through a Christian ethical framework. His years as president, dominated by the Civil War and personal loss, led Lincoln to move into a world beholden to Providence.
Here’s an interesting new book, Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology (Stanford University Press 2013) by Elizabeth A. Pritchard (Department of Religion, Bowdoin) that considers and challenges the view that John Locke sought to privatize religion and instead argues that Locke’s political theology aimed to secularize religion and make it public. John Locke’s views about religion and toleration, of course, are important as intellectual sources for the religion clauses of the US Constitution. The abstract follows.
John Locke’s theory of toleration is generally seen as advocating the privatization of religion. This interpretation has become conventional wisdom: secularization is widely understood as entailing the privatization of religion, and the separation of religion from power. This book turns that conventional wisdom on its head and argues that Locke secularizes religion, that is, makes it worldly, public, and political. In the name of diverse citizenship, Locke reconstructs religion as persuasion, speech, and fashion. He insists on a consensus that human rights are sacred insofar as humans are the creatures, and thus, the property of God. Drawing on a range of sources beyond Locke’s own writings, Pritchard portrays the secular not as religion’s separation from power, but rather as its affiliation with subtler, and sometimes insidious, forms of power. As a result, she captures the range of anxieties and conflicts attending religion’s secularization: denunciations of promiscuous bodies freed from patriarchal religious and political formations, correlations between secular religion and colonialist education and conversion efforts, and more recently, condemnations of the coercive and injurious force of unrestricted religious speech.