Christopher Hitchens was very dismissive of Barack Obama’s quite public professions of Christian faith, saying this was just a guy with political ambitions putting on a show and telling the audience what it wanted to hear. In God Is Not Great, he says the same thing about Martin Luther King, which to me is even more implausible.
I don’t think he is right, but it doesn’t really matter if he was. The point is that biblical narratives still provide an overarching framework for thinking about who we are, where we came from, and where we want to be going. Many secular people too easily forget that many of their most cherished values are partly our values because they merge with Christianity.
Green: What are the major blind spots of radical secularism—including ones you encounter in the academy?
Gorski: In general, academic analyses of history or contemporary society tend to give very short shrift to religion. I think there is a tendency to think of religion as secondary or epiphenomenal, and not to take it into consideration.
Not that it’s just religion. Another great example of this is sports, which is one of the most important things to many non-academics, yet is one of the least studied subjects in academia.
But I don’t want to paint a picture that’s misleading. There has been increasing recognition over the course of my career of the importance of religion to social and historical development.
Green: You write that radical secularism places unreasonable expectations on people of faith and on democracy because it asks people to translate their beliefs into secular language. Explain what you mean.
Gorksi: The language of secular public discourse appeals passively to values like personal autonomy or maximizing utilities or institutional efficiency. The demand that religious people speak that language, on the grounds that it is a putatively neutral language, is incorrect and unfair. I think it would be just as reasonable to ask that secular people become more religiously literate and engage folks who are coming from a position of faith.
Green: How does this theory translate on issues on which people have radically different views—like religious conservatives opposing the expansion of LGBT rights?
Gorski: This is the much harder question. It’s easier to answer questions in an abstract way.
What I would like to see is more of an effort on both sides of divisive issues like this—for people to engage the other side in their own language. People who are LGBTQ activists could engage these arguments biblically and theologically, and maybe raise questions about the arguments against these rights. And it would be good if people from the religious right took more seriously questions about autonomy, human diversity, and sexual identity than they currently do.
Green: In your book, you point to evangelical Christians as the main purveyors of religious nationalism. Why?