Stand Up for Character

An Interview with Philip Gorski

Philip S. Gorski, the Frederick and Laura Goff Professor of Sociology at Yale and chair of Yale’s Department of Sociology, has devoted much time to the interplay of politics and religion in American history, including its mutations in the current anxious moment. His latest book, The Flag + the Cross (Oxford, 2022), co-authored with sociologist Samuel L. Perry, examines white Christian nationalism as a threat to the future of American democracy. The authors say it is not enough to defend democracy—even its enemies insist they are democracy’s last hope, though what they customarily mean is democracy for their own tribe only. The Flag + the Cross argues that Americans should be honoring and defending a specific version of democracy—liberal democracy, a commitment to a multiracial consensus around civic and moral principles that ensure voting rights, racial justice, freedom of religion, pluralism, and the rule of law. In a previous book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, 2017), Gorski  argues for social solidarity inspired by the ideals of a “righteous republic”—an American alliance around principles of the rights of the minority, public-spiritedness, governmental accountability, and military and corporate restraint. This consensus of a “vital center” is a recurring hope in U.S. history—and the only pragmatic way forward in a heterogenous nation where institutional distrust and online conspiracies threaten to make civic life and politics impossible, its defenders argue.[1] Gorski talked recently with Reflections editor Ray Waddle about the role of Christian values in politics and society. Here’s an edited version of their conversation.

Reflections: Is the word “Christian” losing its historic ethical meaning in America?

Gorski: I think Christians and others in the center and on the left have a very important role to play in this moment—in two directions. One is to try to engage with folks who are attracted to Christian nationalism but who perhaps could be persuaded that it’s not really Christian, and I think there are such folks. But they’re not going to be convinced by secular college professors or liberal political pundits. They’re only going to be convinced by someone who speaks their language, the language of faith. The second is to make clear that there are many strands of Christianity and not let just one side speak for Christian tradition. It’s possible to convince people on the secular left, for instance, that they might find Christian allies if they were to seek them.

It’s important for more folks out of (mainline church) traditions to speak truth in the language of their traditions without apology—with the understanding that others won’t agree.

Meanwhile, one thing is clear now more than ever, and it needs to be declared publicly without hesitation: character matters in political leaders. This is something Christian conservatives used to call for regularly, even if they observed it more in the breach. So I would say to Christians of all sorts: be the people who stand up for character.

Reflections: Has the mainline side of American Christianity conceded too much ground in the public definition of their faith? How did this happen?

Gorski: Many mainline Christians have also been ecumenical Christians, or they have also been liberal Christians, and for those reasons have been hesitant to state their beliefs too loudly or claim they have some kind of monopoly on the truth. They’re often committed to open dialogue with people who hold opposing views within the faith, or opposing views to Christianity itself. That reticence was all fine and well when mainline Christianity had enormous cultural influence, when American democracy appeared to be more stable, and when there was more of a political middle. But those are not the times we’re living in anymore. We’re in very different terrain now. 

I do think it’s important for more folks out of those traditions to speak truth in the language of their traditions without apology—with the understanding that others won’t agree. I can understand how mainline believers feel caught in the middle between science and confessional language. But I think they need to have a little bit more confidence in their views even if they don’t enjoy the power of absolute conviction and rely on a simple view of the world. I’m not a trained theologian, but I believe it will mean thinking more creatively going forward, trying new forms of Christian community and practice.

Reflections: Can our spiritual politics function without a measure of forgiveness, humility, compassion, trust? Has the culture cut itself off from such virtues? 

Gorski: A willingness to forgive, a recognition of human weakness—those are very important virtues that are often absent on the left and the right. There’s a lack of tolerance for the frailty of others because we aren’t willing to acknowledge our own. But at the same time, we shouldn’t conclude from the idea of human fallenness that progress is impossible and justice shouldn’t be pursued. That’s the key insight that comes out for me from reading Reinhold Niebuhr and other liberal theologians of the mid-20thcentury: the need to recognize my own limitations but nevertheless redouble a commitment to justice in the world, the pursuit of justice even with a deep sense of how my own sinfulness and cupidity are always seeking to insinuate themselves into what I do. 

Reflections: Is it too much to claim that Christian values have historically strengthened democracy—ideas such as the sacredness of the individual, care for the vulnerable, a skepticism about corruptible human power?

Gorski: If I pull back the camera a bit further, I’d say there have always been both democratic and authoritarian impulses in western Christianity. If you want to make the case that western Christianity has been in the service of authoritarianism and oppression, that’s not hard to do. But you can equally make the case that Christian communities and ideas have been crucial to the development of representational government and democracy—ideas, for example, that took shape within monastic reform movements in the Middle Ages before being taken up in politics. Ideas of individual rights are rooted in Reformation arguments for religious toleration and freedom of conscience. The right to free association and expression are rooted in theological debates as well. Social insurance, the welfare state, and local governance can’t be understood apart from biblical notions of a duty to care for the poor or Catholic principles of subsidiarity. Whatever you mean by democracy—whether representative government, individual rights, written constitutions, or social equality—it’s impossible to understand how those conceptions of society emerged and were implemented aside from ideas of Christian ideals and communities.

Reflections: Does American history offer clues to where we’re headed?

Gorski: U.S. history has long been marked by a series of moments where the nation has turned to a more expansive idea of democracy. You can see that in the Puritan era, in the decades after the Revolution, and after Reconstruction, after the New Deal, and after the Voting Rights Act. With each of those moments came a more inclusive idea of what American democracy means.

But you can trace the roots of white Christian nationalism back pretty far as well, and there are some new and worrying features in the current version. It’s in circulation in ways it wasn’t five or eight years ago, with some deeply mistaken theological ideas that have made it very vulnerable to capture by political forces and ideas.[2] The tension between that kind of Christianity and American culture is basically zero: it’s a religion of power and not principle. There’s not good and evil in this religion, just strong and weak—the cult of strength. Nothing could be more contrary to the character of Christianity. There ought to be tension between Christianity and culture. You don’t want Christianity to get along too easily with the culture.

In many cases this is a backlash against democracy being fought in the name of democracy, with many adherents really believing they’re defending democracy. At the moment, the form it takes is the idea that democracy means “real” Americans should be in charge, not bureaucrats in Washington, pundits in New York, or experts in universities standing in the way of the popular will. This a very narrow understanding of democracy, which to them means they get their way and get to defend their way of life. But that’s not liberal democracy, a system that respects minorities, accepts pluralism, and regards citizenship as something based on shared values rather than birth or racial identity.

Reflections: How can churchgoers contribute to a healthier body politic?

Gorski: I think Christians and others are going to have to be willing to overlook disagreements past and present so they can work with other people who share their commitment to liberal democracy. This will take a broad alliance, a popular front big enough to include conservative evangelicals who aren’t nationalists as well as centrist believers and secular progressives. Think seriously also about local political engagement. One handicap that has become evident among folks in the center or the left is they’ve become so focused on national politics. Maybe instead of focusing all energy on the presidential campaign, important as that is, or identifying a senator in some faraway state who you’d love to see defeated but is nevertheless going to win, devote time and energy to state legislative races and local government and the long haul of building ties across our local communities. Democracy is only as strong as the civil society it rests on. And when civil society becomes unraveled, that’s an invitation to demagogues and grifters of all stripes to come in and collect the spoils.

1. In American Covenant, Gorski says this consensus, based on “the original American Dream of a righteous republic,” will always be rejected by some Americans, including various religious sectarians, secular rationalists, and public controversialists who benefit financially by stoking our divisions. “That leaves the rest of us: those of us who don’t confuse democracy with empire, who don’t think we have a monopoly on truth or morality, who don’t believe that religion is always a source of oppression, and who don’t think that science has all the answers. Or, in positive terms, those of us who are committed enough to the dream of the righteous republic to talk and maybe even walk across the deep trenches that were dug during the culture wars.” American Covenant, p. 233.

2. In The Flag + the Cross, the authors say white Christian nationalism embraces a particular story about the American past and a political vision of the nation’s future. It believes the U.S. should be a Christian nation or at least be ruled by Christians, and its enemies, though their names change across the decades, are regarded as a threat to its particular understanding of freedom, order, and violence. “Freedom is understood in a libertarian way, as freedom from restrictions, especially by the government. Order is understood in a hierarchical way, with white Christian men at the top. And violence is seen as a righteous means of defending freedom and restoring order, means that are reserved for white Christian men. This understanding of freedom, order, and violence is the heart of white Christian nationalism.” Gorski and Perry, pp. 6-7.