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Cultural Studies

Religion in America

by Hans-Dieter Gelfert

When a Frenchman writes about America, expectations are high, the inevitable standard of comparison being Tocqueville’s penetrating analysis of the American mind. Denis Lacorne’s treatment of religion in the USA offers an even richer dose of Frenchness by dedicating considerable space not only to Tocqueville but also to other French writers. In his Introduction he refers to some typical views held by European observers and continues:

Against the background of these widely accepted continental clichés, I have attempted to do two things in this book. The first is to trace the broad outlines of the role of religion in the formation of a distinct American national identity. The second is to examine, against this background, how key French thinkers, from Voltaire and Tocqueville to Sarte and Bernard-Henri Lévy, have tried to explain the place and significance of religion in American politics. (p. XVI)

He then distinguishes

two major competing narratives of identity formation…. The first narrative, derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, is essentially secular… The second narrative of American identity, which I call ‘Romantic’ or ‘Neopuritan’, is based on a radically different view of history. It sees the national identity as the climax of a continous progression of freedom starting with the Reformation and culminating with the first New England Puritan colonies. (p. XVII)

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/public domain)

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/public domain)

In the chapters that follow, Lacorne traces these two concurrent “narratives”, which the reviewer would rather call historical forces, through America’s history, beginning, quite adequately, not with the arrival of the Puritans, but with a chapter on “America, the Land of Religious Utopias”, thus pointing out a tension in the collective American consciousness which is deeper and more pervasive than puritanism in its narrower sense. What Lacorne writes about the puritan influence on the republican and egalitarian spirit of America is mostly common knowledge. Of greater interest is his discussion of the Catholic counter-movement, which began with the Irish immigration in the nineteenth century. He even calls this growing conflict an “American Kulturkampf” (p. 78).

From Chapter Five onwards Lacorne’s French bias gets more prominent by references to writers such as Émile Boutmy and André Siegfried. Chapter Six, “A Godless America”, comes as a surprise. Here America is seen through French eyes as a society under the sway of “the almighty dollar”:

The dollar, technology, speculation, wealth: these were the variants of the name of God in the America of the 1930s as seen by the French intelligentsia. If there was a God, if spirituality still had any meaning, if there were still nations of believers protected by Providence, they were to be found in Europe, certainly not in North America, the continent of triumphant materialism, the first definitively disenchanted world. (p. 119)

This view, blinded by European and especially French prejudices, ignores the fierce tensions within America in an age that began with the Prohibition and led to the New Deal – both of which were campaigns with considerable religious impetus.

Banners in Chicago, celebrating Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential elections (photo: Quinn Dombrowski, source: Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Banners in Chicago, celebrating Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential elections (photo: Quinn Dombrowski, source: Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Chapter Seven gives an account of “The Rise of the Religious Right”, thus bringing the historical narrative up to the late 1980s. In the final chapter, Lacorne, at last, addresses the constitutional issues, under the title “The Wall of Separation Between Church and State”. He begins by admitting that “French attempts to explain the multiple references to religion usually involve exaggerating the differences between the two countries to such an extent that American culture becomes unrecognizable” (p. 141), and then gives a detailed account of the constitutional debate around that “Wall of Separation” which to Americans is as important in the wordly domain as God is in Heaven. However, as Lacorne writes:

The frequency of references to God is deceptive in many respects. It masks a more ambiguous reality that escapes superficial observers of United States history. It is not well known that the American political tradition has gone through periods in which the divine was completely absent. For example, the Federal Constitution drafted by the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, and ratified in the follwing year, omits any reference to God, the Creator, or any kind of supreme being. (p. 143)

In his “Epilogue”, Lacorne turns to the present and takes a look at “Obama’s Faith-Friendly Secularism”. He points out that Obama is “the first president in the history of the United States to acknowledge in an Inaugural Address that there are Americans who do not believe in God” (p. 163). Obama, whom his fanatical enemies still suspect of being a Muslim, has been eager to support faith-based Christian initiatives, yet his general attitude of religious tolerance may have added to the two unfortunate predicaments that doomed his government from the start: his being black and the exaggerated expectations of his followers who hailed him as their quasi-Messiah. Lacorne gives the racial issue as little space as is common in the public debate in America and Europe, even though it should be obvious – not least in light of recent protests and riots fuelled by racial discrimination by the police and other state authorities.To sum up, Lacorne’s book is a useful source of historical information and a well-balanced assessment of its subject matter, thereby providing a good survey. However, for a closer look into the religious heart of America a book like Garry Wills’s Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990) has more to offer.

Denis Lacorne: Religion in America. A Political History
(transl. by George Holoch)
Columbia University Press, New York 2014.
ISBN-13: 9780231151016
Paperback, 264 pp., US$25.00

Hans-Dieter Gelfert was Professor of English Literature and Culture at the Free University of Berlin and, since his retirement in 2000, has been a freelance author and reviewer. He is the author of 25 books, including most recently an analysis of William Shakespeare and his time (William Shakespeare in seiner Zeit, C.H. Beck, Munich 2014). In 2011, he received the George F. Kennan Commentary Award for an article on ‘The contradictory USA. Between religion and enlightenment, between Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street: Why Americans are as they are’.

(c) 2015 The Berlin Review of Books

 

 

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