Philip Gorski is an American Sociologist in the areas of religious and historical Sociology. He is the Co-Director of Yale’s Center for Comparative Research (CCR), and co-runs the Religion and Politics Colloquium at the Yale MacMillan Center. He sat down with Alexander Görlach to talk about the role of religion in the public sphere.
SLD:Politics and religion are back on stage. Why is it that a res publica like the United States of America or European countries such as Austria, Poland or England never cease invoking religious rhetoric and inventory?
Gorski: Religious and national identities tend to be very entangled with each other. In some instances, this is quite explicit. Many Americans consider the US a “Christian nation.” Many Poles consider their country a “Catholic nation.” And even where the connection between religious and national identity is submerged it can be resurfaced by encounters with religious others. In this way, many European countries are discovering thei“Christian” or “Judaeo-Christian” roots via the encounter with European Islam.
SLD: In the case of the US: what is the special appeal of religion? The country, at least that’s the narrative, was founded by refugees from religion.
Gorski: Well, the Puritans were certainly refugees from religious persecution. But they were not refugees from religion. On the contrary, they initially hoped to return to England in triumph. And were it not for the fall of Cromwell, they might well have done so!
strong>SLD: After the Revolution, the so called Protestant establishment — Northeastern Calvinists of various stripes — came to see themselves as the guardians of American democracy and American culture.
Gorski: After World War II, liberal Protestants gradually ceded that role to conservative evangelicals. The latter eventually banded together with conservative Catholics and Jews to create “the religious right” in the 1980s.
SLD: So, it’s not just an appeal. It’s an organized political constituency. Would you argue religion has a place in the public sphere and which one would it be?
Gorski: I do not think it’s possible or fair to exclude religious voices from the public square. Any more than it would be fair to exclude secular voices. We all have our worldviews. There is no such thing as metaphysical neutrality.
SLD: In Europe there is a long standing history of Politisches Christentum, a debate about how much Christianity, its Menschenbild for instance, may contribute to policymaking these days?
Gorski: I think it is important that secular progressives understand that “political Christianity” has made positive contributions to the political evolution of Western Europe. For example, to the institutionalization of human rights. Here, religious parties and religious intellectuals such as the CDU and Jacques Maritain were incredibly important.
SLD: If you compare what happens in the West, the reinvigoration of the Christian heritage or the so called Judeo-Christian heritage, is this not very similar to the religious awakening that we see in many parts of the Muslim world?
Gorski: I think that this reinvigoration has as much to do with intra-religious encounters as inter-religious ones. Christianity and Islam have developed in very different ways in different parts of the world. Globalization — especially improvements in communications — have made Muslims in, say, Iran and Indonesia, much more aware of one another and have raised questions about what the “essence” of Islam is. In the Christian world, the development has been a little different: the center of gravity is shifting from the global North which is increasingly secular to the global South where there is intense ferment.
SLD: Have you detected patterns by which religion serves a purpose (or purposes) in secular countries nowadays?
Gorski: For secular people nowadays, religion mostly enters in during periods of personal or social transition or crisis. Thus, many secular people still avail themselves of religious rituals (e.g., church marriages or funerals) and may still turn to religious leaders in times of great uncertainty (e.g., wars and natural disasters).
SLD: Why do Christians in the US, protestants and Catholics alike, vote for right-wing parties? Why have they been voting for Donald Trump?
Gorski: We have to be careful not to overgeneralize here. It is true that Trump won a majority of American Christians. But race, affiliation and piety all matter here tremendously. The majority of non-white Christians voted for Clinton, for example. And while 80% of white evangelicals did vote for Trump, only about half of white Catholics did so. What’s more there was an inverse correlation between going to church and voting for Trump. White evangelicals who attend church regularly preferred other candidates. They mostly voted for Trump as a second choice.
SLD: Still, it is true that conservative white evangelicals went overwhelmingly for Trump. Why?
Gorski: Abortion, the Supreme Court, perceived assaults on their “religious liberty.” We live in a hyper-partisan, hyper-politicized period in American history.
SLD: Dr Gorski, thank you for your time