Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present

American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present

by Philip Gorski

See All Formats & Editions

An authoritative account of the long battle between exclusionary and inclusive versions of the American story

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


An authoritative account of the long battle between exclusionary and inclusive versions of the American story

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 01/09/2017
Gorski (The Protestant Ethic Revisited), a sociologist and religious studies professor at Yale, offers a sweeping and exhilarating review of the history of American political culture. He revives Robert Bellah’s famous idea of civil religion to look at three intertwined strands of political theology: religious nationalism, which fuses religion and politics; radical secularism, which completely divorces the two forces; and, midway, civil religion, which he sketches as a prophetic republicanism based on ideals drawn from biblical prophets and millennia of political philosophy. He analyzes key figures, offers refreshing insights into some, such as W.E.B. DuBois and John C. Calhoun, and is never shy about offering remedies for the corruption of the American civic spirit. National service is one bold recommendation to reawaken a spirit of public engagement. Gorski’s interpretation is likely to be challenged, and it should be, as part of the process of taking his thesis seriously and using it to move forward politically. More academics should follow his example of contributing to public debate in an accessible way. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

"[American Covenant] charts one way to political reconciliation in these divisive times. . . . [T]his is an important work, one that returns us to our national origins, examines the evidence about our founding--and our founders--concerning religion and its interactions with public policy."--Kirkus
Kirkus Reviews
A philosophically and academically rigorous argument that charts one way to political reconciliation in these divisive times.At the outset, Gorski (Sociology and Religious Studies/Yale Univ.; The Protestant Ethic Revisited, 2011, etc.) declares that he's not writing for scholars, but although he generally adheres to that aim, he sometimes crafts thick paragraphs with multiple allusions that might daunt general readers. His work is also organized in a traditional academic format, featuring introductions, conclusions, lists of points and distinctions, and more than 70 pages of endnotes and bibliography. Nonetheless, this is an important work, one that returns us to our national origins, examines the evidence about our founding—and our founders—concerning religion and its interactions with public policy. Gorski dispels any number of hazy historical beliefs, on both sides of the political spectrum, including the notion that the United States is a Christian nation or that we are an entirely secular nation. He spends much time defining, and refining, his terms and categories and includes the work of many philosophers, historians, writers, and political figures to illuminate his points. Some are names quite familiar—e.g., Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Jerry Falwell, and George W. Bush, while others will be principally familiar to academics (Robert Ingersoll and John Rawls). Gorski is frank and unapologetic about his own left-of-center leanings and issues dire warnings about what will happen if we fail to heal our divisions. Unfortunately, most of his suggestions at the end of the book are unlikely to occur—e.g., "make civic holidays into holidays again"—and though he warns about public ignorance, it's surprising that he does not emphasize more emphatically the absolute necessity of improving our system of public education. Though the narrative is occasionally as dense as a rain forest, it will be rich and rewarding for the determined explorer.

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
820 KB

Read an Excerpt

American Covenant

A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present

By Philip Gorski


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8500-8


The Civil Religious Tradition and Its Rivals

MY ARGUMENT ABOUT civil religion is part of a long tradition in political philosophy and social theory. It is most immediately rooted in the twenty-year-long debate about "civil religion in America" that was unleashed a half century ago by sociologist Robert N. Bellah's 1967 essay of the same name, but its history is far deeper. Bellah may have injected the notion of civil religion into modern sociology, but he did not invent the concept. That honor goes to the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who proposed the establishment of a civil religion to secure his "social contract." Looking back further still, although Rousseau may have introduced the idea of civil religion into political theory, the problem itself was already very old: how to coordinate the spiritual and secular kingdoms, or, in Jesus's words, how to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is his. The modern debate about civil religion is part of a debate about political theology that is as old as monotheism itself.

That it is an old debate does not mean that it is a dead debate — and there are many reasons for revisiting it now. Over the last three decades, there has been a massive resurgence of "public religion," not only in the United States but also around the world. Meanwhile, there has been a rapid growth of the "religiously unaffiliated," initially in Western Europe but increasingly in North America too. Simultaneously, there has been an unprecedented movement of people and ideas around the globe. American religion and culture have been carried to every corner of the planet, and not-yet-American religions and cultures have been imported into every corner of the nation. The result is a new level of cultural pluralism that goes well beyond denominational diversity within American Christianity. The old debate on civil religion provides one starting point for thinking about how we can sustain democratic solidarity in this changing context. It provides an alternative to a reactionary traditionalism that seeks to restore cultural homogeneity and also to a radical individualism that seeks to dissolve all political bonds. It is perhaps the best starting point that we have for thinking about the future of America.


One question I was asked repeatedly as I presented this argument before various audiences — a question that some readers may now be asking themselves — was "Why 'civil religion'?" Secular audiences were often uncomfortable with the mention of "religion," while religious audiences sometimes bristled at its conjunction with "civil." Why not choose a more innocuous-sounding term, they asked? Perhaps something less irritating, like "public philosophy" or "political culture" or "civic creed"?

I take these concerns seriously — but I decided to stick with "civil religion." Why? Partly because I wanted to signal continuity with the Bellah thesis, not out of filial piety, but because I think Bellah's interpretation is mostly right. Another reason is that I found all of the alternatives to be unsatisfactory in one way or another. I was unhappy with "public philosophy" because the civil religious tradition long had — and, for some, still has — a genuinely religious meaning. I did not like the singular "political culture" either because it suggests one unified culture, as opposed to multiple and competing traditions; nor did I like the plural "political cultures," which I found too static and unhistorical. "Civic creed" is perhaps the closest substitute I discovered, but it did not quite suit my purposes either — not because it leaves out the ritual aspects so important to civil religion, such as ceremonies, commemorations, parades, and so on, but because it lacks a narrative dimension. My account focuses more on stories. The civil religion is a narrative that tells us where we came from and where we are headed, not just what our commitments are. It embeds our values and commitments within particular stories of civic greatness — and collective failure.

Still, there is no denying that many regard "civil religion" as an irritating concept. But is that such a bad thing — especially if we understand "irritating" in the root sense of "disorienting"? Disorientation can lead to reflection, and perhaps it would be a good thing for the more secular minded to reflect on how their values are ultimately grounded in a certain "transcendent" understanding of reality, that is, a reality that transcends their physical self and its narrow interests. As the late David Foster Wallace once put it, "In the day-to day trenches of adult life ... [t]here is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." Some may worship money and material things, others beauty and sexual allure, and still others "some sort of god or spiritual-type thing." But we all worship something. In this sense, our lives always have a "spiritual" dimension, even if it remains implicit. And if we realize that, then perhaps the secular minded will not be so quick to dismiss the spiritual commitments of their co-citizens.

A related hope is that the civil religion concept may help the more religiously minded to see that their values necessarily have a civic dimension, and that their highest values can really be protected and exercised only in a certain kind of civic community. If one places a high value on freedom of religion, for example — and most people of faith in this country do — then one must also respect freedom from religion as one possible result of the freedom of conscience. Not everyone will choose to worship "some sort of god or spiritual-type thing." If the religiously minded are honest about their own doubts, perhaps they will not be so quick to judge the secular minded.

Nevertheless, even if one grudgingly admits the usefulness of the civil religion concept, one might still ask: In what sense is the civil religion actually "religious"?

The answer to that question depends a lot on the questioner. For the secularist, civil religion may be religious only in a historical or literary sense: historical insofar as contemporary progressivism owes a deep debt to the Hebrew prophets; literary insofar as the civil religion still supplies the lyric poetry of our public life. One need not be a Bible believer to draw inspiration from the life or oratory of a great civil theologian like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr., or to be compelled by their telling of the American story.

For the religionist, the civil religious tradition may also be religious in an ethical and even theological sense. If we really are all God's children, as King was fond of saying, then we are also equal in the most fundamental sense possible. If we really are commanded to care for "the least of these," as Matthew's Gospel urges, then the pursuit of social justice has the force of a divine command. And if we believe with our founding grandfathers John Locke and Roger Williams that genuine faith must be freely chosen, then religious freedom has a theological warrant. More than that, if we believe, with some early modern thinkers, that the republic is the form of government that God prefers for his peoples (1 Samuel 8), then we must accept that religious freedom involves public expression. Civil and religious liberties, on this view, are inextricably bound together.

Others have asked, "What's civil about civil religion?" The civil religionist sees the civic community as a positive good, even an end in itself, rather than as an instrumental good, a mere means to some other end. For that reason, he or she will try to engage other citizens with civility, that is, with forbearance and respect. And he or she will also strive to build civic friendships with ideological opponents, and not just political alliances with those who are like-minded.

However, civil religion should not be confused with mere civility in the sense of "politeness." The civil religionist is also concerned with the core values of the republic, and these may sometimes trump civic friendship. So the civil religionist will also be prepared to engage in civil disobedience when this is necessary. But the civil religionist will reject ideological absolutism and political violence in the understanding that civic life requires that we balance competing values and forge difficult compromises.

So not "public philosophy" or "political culture" or "civic creed" in the end, but "civil religion.


Bellah initially defined civil religion as the "religious dimension" of the "political realm." Importantly, he understood civil religion as distinct from, but not necessarily opposed to, organized religion. In a later work, Bellah offered a more general definition: civil religion, he said, is the "founding myth" of a political community. This myth generates a "religious dimension, found ... in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality."

Bellah's understanding of civil religion should not be equated with Rousseau's. It is different in a number of ways. First, it is voluntary rather than compulsory. No one is morally or legally obligated to affirm it. Second, it is more scriptural than ritual. It provides a conceptual framework for thinking about the American project rather than a liturgical one for celebrating it. Third, it is not a replacement for organized religion. It "exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches" — and the synagogues, mosques, and temples, one might add. For all these reasons, Bellah's vision of civil religion is compatible with American traditions of religious freedom, individual rights, and cultural diversity in ways that Rousseau's was not, and it is immune from the legitimate criticisms sometimes directed against other versions of the civil religion idea.

Bellah's definition of civil religion does have one major weakness, though: it does not draw a clear enough line between civil religion and religious nationalism. After all, modern-day American exceptionalism can also be understood as a "religious orientation" or a "founding myth." It is partly for this reason that Bellah was sometimes (wrongfully) accused of promoting "national self-worship," and that modern-day Christian nationalism is sometimes (misleadingly) characterized as a civil religion. This is why it is crucial to distinguish the two at the outset.

Civil religion also needs to be clearly distinguished from radical secularism. Civil religion recognizes the importance of an institutional separation between church and state. What it rejects — and what radical secularists embrace — is a total separation between religion and politics. Radical secularists insist that public life can and should be a "neutral" realm. What they really mean by this is that the public square must be made religion-free. This is neither possible nor fair. It is not possible because religious convictions have political implications. It is not fair because it requires that religious citizens translate their arguments into the secularists' language, but not the other way around. And it is probably not even desirable because so many of our deepest convictions are embedded in religious language — even if we ourselves happen to be secularists. Imagine Lincoln's or King's or Obama's speeches shorn of all religious references. Civic poetry would be transformed into political doggerel.

We can distinguish civil religion from its two rivals in terms of both form and substance. We can do so on the basis of form by comparing how each envisions the proper relationship between the religious and political realms (see fig. 1). The religious nationalist wishes to fuse religion and politics, to make citizenship in the one the mark of citizenship in the other, to purge all those who lack the mark, and to expand the borders of the kingdom as much as possible, by violent means if necessary. The radical secularist wishes to fortify the border; to build a wall that is so high and so well guarded that no traffic, no money, no people, no ideas even, can pass through it; and to punish anyone who dares cross from one side to the other. The civil religionist believes that each kingdom has its proper border, but that there is also a place where those borders crisscross with one another, creating a liminal zone where the ends of religion and the ends of politics overlap, and that preserving this space is of vital importance to both kingdoms. Religious nationalists advocate total fusion; radical secularists advocate total separation; civil religionists accept partial overlap.

We can also distinguish the three traditions in terms of substance. They all draw on two main sources: the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, and Western political philosophy, both ancient and modern. But they draw on them in different ways. Western theology and philosophy both give rise to various streams that diverge from and converge with one another like a delta at the intersection of two rivers. The American civil religion is fed by biblical as well as philosophical sources, specifically prophetic religion and civic republicanism. Religious nationalism draws only on biblical sources, particularly biblical tales of conquest and apocalypse. Radical secularism draws only on philosophical sources, specifically libertarian liberalism and total separationism (see fig. 2).

The relationship among religious nationalism, radical secularism, and civil religion is a bit like the relationship between two powerful clans. Religious nationalists and radical secularists want to keep their bloodlines pure. They want nothing to do with each other. Civil religionists do not think this is possible. They see the lineages as intermixed and even intermarried.

For many Americans, the term "prophetic religion" conjures up visions of the Apocalypse and the Rapture such as one finds in the book of Daniel and the Revelation of John. This, however, is not what I mean by "prophetic religion" but instead is related to a stream of thought generally known as "apocalypticism." In American religious nationalism, apocalypticism flows together with a certain reading of the Hebrew Bible, which I will refer to as the "conquest narrative." This narrative highlights the martial exploits of the ancient Israelites described in Joshua, Judges, and Kings. The basic formula for religious nationalism in American history has been apocalyptic politics plus the conquest narrative.

The conquest narrative can be contrasted with another reading of the Hebrew Bible that draws mainly on "Latter Prophets" such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. It is to this reading that I refer in using the term "prophetic religion." It stresses the covenants formed between God and his people in the Pentateuch and then deepened and reaffirmed in the books of the prophets. The basic formula for civil religion in American history has been prophetic religion plus civic republicanism, or, more succinctly, prophetic republicanism.

It is now time to dive a little more deeply into these various streams of thought, to map out their divergences and convergences in a little more detail.


The Jewish and Christian Bibles are often read as a series of sacred agreements or "covenants" between God and his people. Biblical scholars usually distinguish the covenants made by Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The terms of these covenants gradually evolved over time. In the first, or Noahide, covenant, established after the Great Flood, Noah and his descendants agree not to eat blood or kill one another. In return God gives them "every moving thing that lives" as food and promises that they shall "be fruitful and multiply." The sign of the rainbow seals the first covenant. In the second, or Abrahamic, covenant, established after the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Abraham promises obedience to God, and God promises him land and progeny. The rite of circumcision seals this covenant. In the third, or Mosaic, covenant, established following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites promise obedience to God's laws, and God promises to make them a "light unto the world" — and threatens to punish them should they backslide. The Ten Commandments seal this covenant.

Up to the point of the making of the Mosaic covenant, prophetic religion and the conquest narrative have been flowing along in the same streambed. With the arrival of the prophets, they begin to diverge, especially over the question of blood sacrifice. In the early covenants, blood sacrifice remains central: Noah makes a burnt offering to God, Abraham constructs an altar to God, and Moses includes sacrifice in the Law. In the prophetic books, however, we find scoffing denunciations of blood sacrifice. In the first chapter of Isaiah, we encounter these words: "'What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?' says the LORD; 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. ... Bring no more vain offerings.'" If burnt offerings are made in "vain," then what exactly does God desire from his people? The prophet Micah provides part of the answer: "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings ...? ... What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" The book of Amos adds the following: "Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. ... But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."


Excerpted from American Covenant by Philip Gorski. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Philip Gorski is professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University. His books include The Protestant Ethic Revisited and The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews