God and the Atlantic
Those Americans who believe in American religious exceptionalism—that America’s experiment in voluntary religion has been a great blessing to America and the world—are in for a cold shower when they read Thomas Albert Howard’s new book. Howard recounts the opinions of a myriad of European writers of the Left and Right who also believed that American religion was exceptional—exceptionally bad.
Nearly everyone has an inkling that Europe is a more secularized civilization than ours. And we know of the contempt that some Europeans have for the American religious experiment, especially for those political leaders who seem to be its most obvious products. Most of us are acquainted with the Marxist Left’s estimation of religion as the opiate of the people. Some of us have had contact with vestiges of the old elite of Europe who look down their noses at rough and ready American religion. A few hours spent in the Fellows’ Rooms of Oxbridge colleges easily give whiffs of such attitudes. Then, too, one doesn’t have to spend much time in Europe to run into an everyday sort of secularism that finds it curious that Americans actually attend church on Sunday mornings instead of playing tennis or going on an outing.
Still, reading this massively-researched book is an eye-opening experience. We did not know—or at least this writer did not know—the tremendous literature churned out by Europeans in the last three centuries that found American religion despicable, if not worse. There is a strong precedent for the current attitudes of European elites toward American religion. This book tells the story in all its amazing variety.
In his introduction, Howard notes how Americans have largely relied on the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s perceptive and appreciative—though critical—assessment of the role of religion in early America. Our reliance on de Tocqueville has shielded us from majority European elite opinion. Howard says he will give a fuller story by recounting quite contrary “narratives of both the Right and the Left” in their negative assessment of American religion. And does he ever, in sometimes excruciating detail.
The European Right was appalled at the fissiparous character of American Protestantism. The proliferation of wild and wooly religious “sects” seemed to undercut the unifying and sanctifying functions that the traditionalists of Europe expected religion to play. Howard lets quite an array from this party speak for themselves—the British Anglicans, the French Catholics, and especially the German traditionalists of both Catholic and Protestant stripe.
Among this group there are some unhappy surprises, unhappy because we thought these worthies would have a higher assessment of us Americans. The revered Samuel Johnson said: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American” (32). The German poet Heinrich Heine described America as a “God-accursed land,” a “monstrous prison of freedom, where… the most repulsive of all tyrants, the masses, practice their vulgar dominion” (53). But first prize among the European Rightists has to go to Martin Heidegger, whose ruminations were offered within living memory. He opined: “Bolshevism is only a variant of Americanism…. Americanism is the most dangerous sense of boundlessness; it is utterly devoid of any sense of history…. It is the still unfolding and not yet full or completed metaphysical essence of the emerging monstrousness of modern times” (65). Ah, and what kettle is calling the pot black?
The narrative from the Left or “Secularist” side carries a similar distaste for American religion, but this time not because of its irregular vigor, but because it survives as a significant factor at all. French social thought—Condorcet through Saint-Simon to Comte—held that the state could easily take the place of the church—particularly in its French Catholic form—in the loyalties of modern humans. Marxists thought it was far past the time for the socialist project to take the place of the church’s mission. America, with no serious socialist movement, was particularly retrograde with its religious vitality. The same was true of the republican revolutionaries of 1848, who came to this country after their revolutions failed in Europe. The anti-clerical rationalism they held dear was impeded by “a certain backwardness of thought” (85).
Perhaps it is churlish to note that at the height of nineteenth-century, elite criticism of America and its religious arrangement, millions of ordinary Europeans were embarking from Europe to America to seek a better life here. The vast majority of those immigrants found religious homes for themselves in the very churches of which the critics were so contemptuous. What happens on the ground may be quite different from what the elite prefer.
Howard brings the secularist critique right up to the present, with writers such as Salman Rushdie expressing their distaste for the “sheer weirdness of the American citizenry” (133). Thus, the author sees the current stream of European criticism as continuous with a long-running “embedded hermeneutical proclivity which sustains a simmering cultural ressentiment, which can be aggravated by contemporary events and trends in American society, even as it significantly predates them” (114). Further, those American intellectuals who still take their signals from the European elite reflect similar attitudes on this side of the Atlantic.
After reading the scores of critiques from Right and Left—and I have sketched only their barest outlines, one is tempted to proclaim a pox on both their houses and upon the European elite in general; however, Howard does not allow us such an easy escape. He moves into extensive analyses of Philip Schaff, the great Reformed theologian and church historian, and Jacques Maritain, the famed Catholic Thomist philosopher, both of whom, though European born and bred, spent many years in America and came to much more positive conclusions about the promise of American religion. (It is interesting that the sharpest denunciations of America and its religion came from intellectuals who had never visited America. America seemed to operate for them as a symbol of the dark side of all they cherished, whether or not they actually encountered the empirical reality of what they feared in it.)
Both Schaff and Maritain came to appreciate the American experiment with religious liberty, even though they were much discomfitted by it in their early years in America. As they developed their own appreciation for the American experiment, they became distraught at the negative stance taken by their European comrades and took up a spirited defense of the American religious project. Howard gives ample space to careful exposition of their thought on these matters, an altogether happy antidote to the earlier critiques.
Howard ends his book with a number of significant insights. The European elite, he suggests, has operated with certain fixed ideas about the relation of religion and the state. One could call them clichés. These ideas posit a zero-sum game, a dialectic of either/or: religion or the state, each informed by radically different visions of the good. This dialectical model is projected onto America, which really doesn’t fit it at all. Thus, such negative assessments, or, at best, puzzlements. Rather, Howard, borrowing from the political theorist Hugh Heclo, suggests that American religion and American society are more like “a double-stranded helix spiraling through time, Christianity and civil government were now both freed from the old European dialectic of yes/no, unity or chaos, and became two maybes, moving together, each affecting the other” (197). I have called this interaction “critical engagement” in my little book Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics (Eerdmans 2010), which definitely moves along the lines of the double helix.
Thomas A. Howard has written a remarkable book. Its roughly two hundred pages is supplemented by nearly fifty pages of notes. He has done a herculean job of research on the many writers he examines and handles their thought with erudition and aplomb. It is clear that he is partial to the American scheme of religious liberty, but generally he lets the critics of Left and Right hoist themselves on their own petards. One can imagine a wry smile accompanying their over-the-top statements. He has given us a marvelous understanding of the historical sources of the great Atlantic rift.