The Front Row: American Civic Culture

Dec 5, 2017

The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization sponsored another visitor for its lecture series, Dr. Philip Gorski. He joins the Front Row, along with Stephen Balch, who is the director of the institute.

Dr. Balch, tell us about the talk that happened last night.

America and the United States is a very important part of Western Civilization. And the future of one very much depends on the future of the other. So, last night we brought in Dr. Philip Gorksi, of Yale University, professor of sociology and religious studies there. And he spoke about, essentially spoke about, American civic culture. The title of his talk was, “In Search of Our Better Angels: A Brief History of American Civil Religion,” which he feels is at the core of our political culture.

Dr. Gorski, tell us a little bit about your talk last night. What exactly is civil religion?

I like the term civil religion in part because my graduate school mentor wrote a famous essay about it. But I also like it because I think it identifies something that’s very important and unique about our civic culture, which is that it has both a civil and a religious strand—or to put it a little bit differently, it has both secular and religious sources.

I think this is something which is too often forgotten in our current debates. There are some folks who only want to see one side and other folks who only want to see the other side and really, what I’m trying to do is to remind folks that our culture is this unusual synthesis of the secular and the religious.

You were a guest on Faith Matters. In that discussion, you were talking about civil discourse in general. You see that as a real problem in our society, don’t you?

I see that as really one of the fundamental problems in our politics at the moment. One of the things that I said in my lecture last night is that a lot of people feel that we argue too much, I actually think in a way that the problem is reverse, that we argue too little. We trade insults with each other, that’s certainly true. There’s no shortage of shouting and name calling in our politics, but there’s far less actual civil argument about ideas and our politics.

So, yeah, I do think this is a real problem. The way that our constitutional system is designed, it really does require some degree of compromise on the part of people and our representatives. And right now there seems to be sort of a winner-takes-all mentality, which I don’t think is serving us very well.

Listen to the full interview at the top of the article.