Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Obama and civil religion

The virtue of Philip Gorski’s annoyingly sententious post is that it states frankly the basis of the unity I found in Barack Obama’s "perfect union" speech. A snippet:

Crusader nationalism and racial division are really two sides of the same coin. If crusader nationalism is the bond, or one of the bonds, that holds defense conservatives and religious conservatives together, racial division is the wedge that was used to separate the “Reagan Democrats” from the New Deal coalition. The first step in the construction of the Reagan coalition was, of course, the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon, the use of carefully coded race-baiting to alienate working-class whites from the Democratic party. From Nixon’s allusions to “states rights” and “law and order” through Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Bush Sr.’s “Willie Horton” ad, this has been a staple of Republican campaigns for over three decades.

To make a new Democratic coalition, one must therefore unmake the Reagan coalition. The first step is racial reconciliation. But if racial solidarity is to be deconstructed, what will take its place? That is the question to which Obama’s speech is an answer. And his answer is civil religion.


Insofar as the Republican coalition relies on racial antagonism, unmaking it requires racial reconciliation. But that is only a first step. The second step is to reconfigure the party landscape around class, to establish an alliance between the economically underprivileged and the culturally privileged, between those bereft of economic capital (black and white), and those rich in cultural capital (the “latte liberals”). Of course, the language of class is verboten in American public discourse. And Obama does not use it. Instead, in an Edwards moment, Obama argues that “the real culprits of the middle class squeeze ” are “a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” Here, he invokes the approved language of populism, pitting ordinary people against greedy corporations and Washington lobbyists, against economic exploiters and pseudo-intellectuals.

This language has a second advantage as well. Not only does it allow him to elide the forbidden language of “class warfare.” It also allows him to invoke the language of democratic sovereignty and national identity. For “the people” is a term that plays on two registers: class as well as nation. In this way, demands for social justice are implicitly linked with claims to popular sovereignty and patriotism. And rejection of those demands appears as un-democratic and un-American.

So Obama’s "civil religion" is a form of class consciousness, albeit one expressed soothingly and smilingly.

There are a couple of other things about the post that serve, I think, to undermine its credibility (and that of its author). First, there’s this caricature of the Republican coalition:

One of the great, unremarked advantages of the Republican coalition over the last three decades has been its ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Apart from a few Jewish and black neo-conservatives — the Bill Kristols and Ken Blackwells — it is overwhelmingly white and evangelical.

Tell that to the Catholics, a majority of whom voted for GWB in 2004 and a significant minority of whom continue to identify with the GOP. Tell it to the business Republicans who regularly express disdain for evangelicals. Of course, it serves Gorski’s (and Obama’s?) version of civil religion to paint Republicans as "the Other."

Second, there’s his reliance on
this book, which I reviewed for PAL’s journal. I found the argument unpersuasive then and discover that it hasn’t improved with age. (If you want the text of my revew, either subscribe to Perspectives, or send me an email.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Good points. And we should also note that the history is wrong. The Willie Horton ad was produced by an independent group that the Bush campaign didn't particularly like. The Bush campaign had the revolving door ad. An independent group put Willie Horton's picture on TV.

And while anyone's talking to "the Catholics" I hope they mention that McCain sought Rev. Hagee's endorsement. Does anyone here think that should require an explanation from McCain? Shouldn't McCain be disavowing Hagee? Can we expect a stirring speech on religion in America now?

Have either the Hagee or the Parsley endorsement even been mentioned here at NLT before?

Dr. Knippenburg, your essay on Obama and civil religion for the Ashbrook Center was outstanding.

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