The 'Vital Center' of American Politics Needs Heroes & Myths to Beat Back Religious and Secular Extremists, Philip Gorski says

I've spent pretty much all of my life fascinated by the interactions between religion and public life. I grew up in a very strict fundamentalist Christian church. I went to Christian music festivals, marched in anti-abortion protests with my parents, and watched my parents become loyal Republicans from the Reagan era on. As a journalist I've been in rooms on the upper east side of Manhattan where secular liberals hissed and booed in 2004 at the mention of religious conservatives who they feared wanted to impose a theocracy, and I've interviewed Christians who believe America is a Christian nation and should be governed by the Bible.


I've always believed that church and state should not be joined together, but I've also been skeptical of those who say religious conviction should have no role in public life or politics. And I think many people feel this way.


I came across a book that is a few years old that does a compelling job of laying out this middle ground. "American Covenant" by Philip Gorski is for those who "know that the American project has a moral and spiritual core" (3) but believe that the role of religion in public life is to be prophetic, holding those in power to account and to higher principles, rather than seeking to hold power and domination.


Gorski, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University, argues that "religious nationalism is just national self-worship ... political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy." But he also says that "radical secularism is little more than a misguided effort at cultural censorship, political illiberalism dressed up as liberal politics" (3). He also says that "one of the hidden weaknesses of secular progressivism today is its resistance to tradition" (xiii). He aims in the book to provide historical narratives and exemplary figures from history to buttress a "living tradition" (2) that can sustain a "vital center" in American public life "who share "a commitment to liberal democracy and a willingness to put national interests before political power when democracy itself is at risk, as it is now."


"To be part of a tradition is to know certain stories, read certain books, admire certain people, and care about certain things," (4) he writes.


Gorski writes that the civil religious tradition is what should animate the vital center. We discuss what that term means and how it is found in American history. Here is Gorski's comparison of civil religion to the other two options: religious nationalism and radical secularism.


"Religious nationalism fails because it is idolatrous and thus irreligious, because America was not founded as a 'Christian nation,' and because many modern-day Americans are not believing Christians but are good citizens nonetheless. Radical secularism fails because restricting religious expression violates liberal principles, because the United States was not founded on a 'total separation' of religion and politics, and because most Americans are still religious," (4) he writes.


"The civil religious tradition ... is neither idolatrous nor illiberal, because it recognizes both the sacred and the secular sources of the American creed, becuase it provides a poliitical vision that can be embraced by believers and nonbelievers alike, and because it is capacious enough to incorporate new generations of Americans," he says.


As we get into near the end, i think there is a pretty strong connection between this book and Jonathan Rauch's "Constitution of Knowledge." Rauch's book makes the argument for how we should agree on what is true and what is not. This book provides a historical, theological, philosophical, and moral argument for why the Constitution of Knowledge is the best hope for American democracy, and how it is truly American as well. In the process, it calls out as false many of the ideas and stories being promoted by right-wing figures today, such as Tucker Carlson, and illuminates how the...

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