American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present
By Philip Gorski
Princeton University Press, 2017, 320 pages
As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not a big fan of “Christian nationalism” or “civil religion.” By Christian nationalism, I’m referring to the popular belief among many evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation and is understood to be in a covenant relationship with God in ways that parallel God’s covenant relationship with ancient Israel, and that it is up to Christian Americans to protect and preserve America’s status as a Christian nation via politics. Jerry Falwell, Sr. may have been the most famous apostle of Christian nationalism and current purveyors include his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Franklin Graham.
As for civil religion, one source defines it as “the folk religion of a nation, often involving ritual expressions of patriotism. It is frequently given merit by leaders within a society, for example with the invocation of God in political speeches or religious references relating to patriotic holidays” (see here). In American civil religion, citizens are united under a nebulous, generic Supreme Being, with good citizenship and service to country being the highest ideals.
I recently stumbled across this book on our local library’s on-line catalog and thought it would be a nice, big, juicy critique of civil religion. Argh, was I ever wrong! Gorski cites the increasing polarization in this country between Christian nationalists and radical secularists and concludes the only desirable path forward is civil religion.
This book is chock full of acadamese and is dry as a bone. I’m thinking I deserve a gold medal from the library for sticking it out to the end. The only “saving grace” was that the notes, bibliography, and index consumed 90 of the 320 pages. In those rare moments when my eyes weren’t glazing over, I did pick up on the following:
- Early American Protestant ministers preached a type of American covenantalism that was even more radical than I had previously understood. I did appreciate the portion of the book that analyzed how early Americans collectively saw themselves as God’s chosen people.
- American covenantalism led to the notion of American exceptionalism and entitlement, which then led to all kinds of abuses.
- The author erroneously paints all evangelical Christians as unreasonable religious nationalists in the mold of Falwell, Jeffress, etc.
- For civil religion to succeed, the author argues that people mustn’t take their personal, private religion too seriously (i.e., sectarianism).
- Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. are touted as exemplary civil religionists. The greatest goals of civil religion are a united and responsible citizenry and the pursuit of social justice.
I’m of a mind that both Christian nationalism and civil religion are incompatible with Biblical Christianity. Yes, God’s Word exhorts believers to be good citizens, but the reason for that is so that the Gospel may be unhindered, NOT that we may become neck-deep in nationalism. I understand that Christians have been debating precisely what good citizenship entails for two-thousand years, but it’s demonstrably easy to see that we’ve gotten it wrong over most of that span. I’m of the opinion that conservative evangelicalism took a wrong turn back in the 70s and 80s when it put the Gospel on the back burner and immersed itself in politics and culture wars. But I’m also very confident that the path forward for Christians is not Gorski’s impersonal civil religion.