The Hebraic covenant of the civil religion and the Hellenic Arcadia of the civil culture

Two recent books reiterate a common argument about two presumed foundational traditions of the United States, the Hebraic and the Hellenic.

In the words of its blurb, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (2017) by Philip Gorski (Sociology & Religious Studies, Yale) argues that the American Founders envisioned a prophetic republic which would weave together the ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. This republic was founded on the vital center of the civil religious tradition. However, over the last half century this vision has been threatened by an internecine struggle of two rival traditions, religious nationalism (a form of militaristic hyperpatriotism) and radical secularism (a denial of the contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the American project).

Also in the words of its blurb, American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition (2016) by Peter J. Holliday (History of Art & Classical Archaeology, California State U.-Long Beach), Californians shaped their world using classical Greco-Roman models. These models influenced philosophical beliefs, civic ideals, urban development, the economy, the environment, the arts, the film industry, even the very physical and spiritual selves of the citizens. The Arcadian sensibility of the West Coast, a manifestation of American classicism, persists to the present day. Its history is evidence of the flexibility and fluidity of classicism’s long history, which is still vibrant.

As has been usually the case with studies of Jerusalem and Athens as supreme Western models, the Hebraic volume focuses on civic religion while the Hellenic one on civic culture. Both argue that their foundational model endures and remains relevant. Nevertheless, it is unusual, and refreshing, to see that they survey their respective history and make their case without any major comparisons to the other pole of the traditional Hebraic/Hellenic dialectic.

June 26, 2017

P.S.  These two books may come under new light when read in the context of Donald Trump’s recent references to Western civilization.

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