June 13, 2017
Authors, especially academic ones, live in constant fear that some other scholar is working on the same subject and scheduled for nearly simultaneous publication. In such cases one’s own book may be preempted or at best compete for the attention of the targeted audience. That may seem to have happened with Yale Professor Philip Gorski’s survey of American civil religion, given that my own latest book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest, appeared just a few months before (and from Gorski’s own university press).
However, it turns out that the two books do not clash at all; indeed, they complement each other in an elegant fashion. For Gorski (his subtitle notwithstanding) is a sociologist, not an historian, and American Covenant is devoted exclusively to the American civil religion as a domestic phenomenon whereas Tragedy is devoted exclusively to foreign affairs. Nevertheless, both books were inspired by sociologist Robert Bellah, who first noticed and described “American Civil Religion” in the 1967 edition of the journal Daedalus, and both tell a story of strife and declension among rival civil theologies.
Have you ever heard of Deep Springs College, surely one the strangest institutions of higher learning in the United States? It is located on a ranch in an otherwise empty valley in California’s High Sierra. The nearest town, about 25 miles away, is Dyer, Nevada, population 250. The admissions process is highly selective and college enrollment tiny, just 25 to 30 students. The curriculum rests upon the three pillars of academics, self-government, and work, because every student devotes at least twenty hours per week as cowboys or ranch hands. After two years the students transfer, invariably to the University of California, Stanford, or the Ivy League. Gorski is an alumnus of that remote secular monastery where, he attests, the works of Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville are passed around like sacred texts. He then graduated from Harvard, took a Ph.D. at Berkeley, where Bellah was his mentor, and taught at the University of Wisconsin before being named co-director of comparative research at Yale. In previous books he has studied the impact of Calvinism, the Protestant ethic, and state-building on early modern Europe, an excellent objective vantage point from which to observe the mystical, magical, shape-shifting American civil religion (ACR).