Religion in America

By Denis Lacorne
Publish Date: July 26, 2011

An excerpt from the introduction of Religion in Americathe third volume in the publication series by Columbia University Press and the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.

There is general agreement that the United States is the most religious of advanced Western democracies. The level of religious observance in the country is unusually high and political language is imbued with religious values and religious references. “In God We Trust” is the national motto of the United States and enshrined on its currency, “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and an impressive number of elected offi cials—members of Congress, cabinet offi cers, and presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush—have claimed a special relationship with the Almighty following a momentous adult conversion experience. And yet this reality is the source of major misunderstandings, clichés, and misperceptions between the United States and other Western nations regarding the proper role of religion in a modern democracy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in France, where contemporary writers—journalists, political scientists, philosophers, novelists—are particularly disturbed by what they see on the American political scene: the proliferation of religious slogans and allegories; the frequency of worship services, prayer meetings, and thanksgiving celebrations organized by public introduction authorities; the inordinate use of a Manichean rhetoric opposing the forces of Good to the forces of Evil. Such manifestations of an overwhelming public religiosity reinforce the French belief that the United States is an aggressively and unapologetically Christian nation. Its political creed, it is argued, has remained fundamentally Anglo-Protestant, despite an increasing influx of Asian and Latino immigrants whose cultural values are by definition outside the ambit of Anglo-Protestantism.

Based on these assumptions, numerous French observers have concluded that there is no escape from religion in American politics and that, despite its well-established republican framework, American democracy is less advanced because it has not yet completed its process of secularization. The French, they argue, are more authentically “republican” than the Americans, because they have enshrined a secular ideal in the fi rst article of their constitution and have established a long-lasting separation between church and state.

Against the background of these widely accepted continental clichés, I have attempted to do two things in this book. The fi rst 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 Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy, have tried to explain the place and signifi cance of religion in American politics.

America is unique in that the foundation of its political institutions preceded the development of its national identity. As the historian John Murrin aptly put it, in the United States, as opposed to most European countries, the “constitutional roof ” was built before the “national walls.” 1 The American Revolution and its constitutional climax did not deepen a strong, preexisting sense of national identity. It created a new political framework, and the “national walls,” including cultural references to a distant past, were built later.

In looking at the history of these attempts to construct a national identity, I argue that there is not, as some historians and political scientists have maintained, one narrative, but at least two major competing narratives of identity formation. These narratives have been crafted by historians, philosophers, novelists, and political leaders, who at certain critical junctures reassess or reformulate the links between the past, the present, and the future.

The first narrative, derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, is essentially secular. Associated with the Founding Fathers and reflected in the founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers), it is predicated on the necessity of separating religion from politics in order to preserve newly acquired political freedoms from the danger of an overpowering established church. The American attempt to create a genuine “wall of separation” between church and state was embraced by prominent continental thinkers like Voltaire, Tom Paine, and Démeunier, the editor of the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1784–1788), who saw the American project as a radical attempt to create a new political regime, detached from religion and liberated from the weight of an ancient history.

The second narrative of American identity, which I call “Romantic” or “Neopuritan,” is based on a radically diff erent view of history. It sees the national identity as the climax of a continuous progression of freedom starting with the Reformation and culminating with the fi rst New England Puritan colonies. This alternative vision of America was elaborated by Whig politicians and Romantic historians (most notably Bancroft) in the fi rst half of the nineteenth century. It is still shared by political scientists who, like Samuel Huntington, insist that there is only one core identity for the United States— the “American Creed”—which they describe as a stable ideology based on a unique combination of Protestant and republican values.

Despite the frequency with which these two basic versions of American national identity are still invoked by modern political thinkers, both have undergone signifi cant modifi cations and adaptations over the course of the last two centuries. Near the middle of the nineteenth century, the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the arrival of millions of non-Protestant immigrants called into question the dominant Neopuritan paradigm and gave rise to various reinterpretations of the American national identity. The most significant of such reinterpretations were fashioned by nativist advocates of the new science of Social Darwinism and by progressive elites eager to facilitate the assimilation of newcomers while respecting their distinct cultures and religious traditions.

In the twentieth century, the secular paradigm so strongly defended a century earlier by Thomas Jeff erson was rediscovered and rehabilitated by progressive justices of the Supreme Court. That paradigm continues to define the court’s jurisprudence today despite numerous attempts to lower or break down the “wall of separation” between church and state. In stark opposition to this revival of the secular paradigm, a new evangelical antisecular narrative emerged in the South in the 1960s and has profoundly marked the ideology and electoral strategy of the Republican Party.

The second emphasis of this book is on how French observers have perceived the complex interaction of religion with politics in America. French views of religion in America are surprisingly diverse and idiosyncratic. At the time of the American Revolution, there was a productive exchange of ideas between French intellectuals and American political elites. The consensus, following Voltaire’s infl uence and that of other Enlightenment philosophers, was that religion was not central to the building of a modern American nation; what mattered most was a “government without priests” and a genuine separation between church and state. In the 1830s, this view was generally displaced by a new perspective defended, among others, by Tocqueville: the “spirit of religion” was the root cause of American democracy and the Puritan tradition was acknowledged as structuring the political life, the social mores, and the religious beliefs of the country. There were some dissenting voices expressed by followers of Saint-Simon who questioned the relevance of Puritanism and praised the rising infl uence of more “democratic” religions derived from the Second Great Awakening. But the perspective adopted by Tocqueville remained dominant in the mid-nineteenth century and was widely shared by other European thinkers and American historians.

It was only a century later, starting in the 1930s, that French perceptions of religion in America signifi cantly diverged from these earlier secularist and Neopuritan currents. Perhaps the most signifi cant example is the influential French Catholic writers who, concerned about the excesses of modern capitalism, came to the conclusion that the “death of God” was the central value of the American polity and that it was Europe’s duty to prevent the spread of such a dangerous materialistic ideology to the rest of the world. This radically new perspective placed on an equal footing “Godless America” and “Godless (Soviet) Communism.” It marked the beginning of a fundamental divergence between French and American views of religion in America—a divergence which persists to this day, although, paradoxically, with diametrically opposed results. The consensus shared by a majority of French writers and journalists today, which dates to the end of the Second World War, represents a clear break from the 1930s: God is once again back in America and the American identity is fi xed once and for all in its Puritan past, as if nothing had changed over the past four centuries.

Twentieth-century French perceptions of America, however contradictory, share a common pessimistic message. The United States is not really a democracy. It is either a godless nation dominated by the profi t motive, or the very opposite: an intolerant Anglo-Protestant theocracy.

In revisiting the complex interplay of secular and religious traditions in America, this book provides a decentered historiographical perspective based on the confrontation of two distinct literatures: two rival American exegeses of the “founding of America” and competing visions of the “essence” of America defended by prominent as well as lesser-known French observers. French perceptions and misperceptions of America do matter: they have had a definite impact on the formative thought of the Founding Fathers and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America remains to this day an inspiring work for American scholars. But other French writers deserve rediscovery, and a systematic reading of their works will deepen our knowledge of America’s political and religious development as seen from abroad over the course of four centuries. Paradoxically, modern French writers do not seem to understand that America is more than the sum of its parts and cannot be reduced to afixed Puritan or evangelical ideology, uncritically used to explain what is wrong with America, from Jimmy Carter’s election to the Lewinsky affair to Bush’s war against the Axis of Evil. Perceptions matter, even if they are distorted and sometimes comical; they infl uence public opinion on both sidesof the Atlantic. Religion in America can be better understood if it is seen inthe context of an intermittent, often friendly but sometimes hostile dialoguebetween French and American thinkers.

It  is obvious that the periods chosen for this book—the late eighteenth century, early and mid-nineteenth, early twentieth, the 1930s, and the present—follow a chronological order. But this apparent order is interrupted by a series of deliberate discontinuities. They refer to critical moments or “historiographical regimes” that, it is assumed, infl uence the very way in which we think about religion in the United States. The authors studied never wrote in a closed world. Their perceptions, real or imaginary, were necessarily located in a larger historical context that directed their views and incited them to emphasize certain particular events, sets of great ancestors, or utopias over others.

Constant and simultaneous reference to French and American sources might seem unnecessarily complicated, but I have found it to be the best way of revealing the common historiographical traditions shared by France and the United States. It has also helped me to verify the accuracy of my sources and establish the necessary critical distance between European and American narratives often wrongly presented as factual. The confrontation of two national literatures dealing with the same subject—religion in the United States in relation to politics—has greatly eased my task. It has allowed me to develop a better understanding of the confl icting accounts presented by French and American witnesses of great American political and religious transformations in all their ambiguities, contradictions, and inaccuracies.

From Religion in America by Denis Lacorne. Translated by George Holoch. Copyright (c) 2007  Editions GALLIMARD. Copyright (c) 2011 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Denis Lacorne is a senior research fellow with the CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po, Paris. A frequent commentator on American politics in the French press and on French television, his books include With Us or Against Us: Studies in Global Anti-Americanism and Language, Nation, and State: Identity Politics in a Multilingual Age, both with Tony Judt.

Tony Judt (1948–2010) was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University and director of its Erich Maria Remarque Institute. His last book was The Memory Chalet.

Category: Discussion