The Nation and the Covenant

Over at The Immanent Frame, Philip Gorski on Obama’s speech and civil religion:

In the context of Western, democratic, nation-states, there have been three main solutions to the “church-state problem”: liberal secularism, civil religion and religious nationalism. By liberal secularism, I mean a juridico-legal system that disestablishes churches and privatizes religion. (For purposes of the present analysis, I am treating republican secularism, such as one finds in France or Turkey, as an extreme variant of liberal secularism, of the sort that exists within the Atlantic world.) By civil religion, I mean a sacralization of the democratic polity and a celebration of the sovereign people that borrows heavily from theistic language and ritual. By religious nationalism, finally, I mean a sacralization of the national state and the election of the common people that glorifies blood sacrifice and rejects the restraints of the covenant…

The history of the democratic experiment in the United States can be narrated as an oscillation between these three “solutions” or, more precisely, as an ongoing competition between them waged by an ever-changing cast of politicians, parties and movements. These three solutions are, in fact, one way of defining left and right in American politics. The Democratic Party has typically embraced liberal secularism (Jefferson) or civil religion (Kennedy). The Republican Party has typically embraced civil religion (Lincoln) or religious nationalism, Bush the Lesser). Civil religion, then, is the “vital center” of the American tradition.

Insofar as the present political conjuncture involves a choice between civil religion and religious nationalism – I would like to dwell on them further and say a few words about the particular form that they have taken in the American context.