Reviewed by John H. Brown, Ph.D.
Thomas Albert Howard, God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, ISBN13: 978-0-19-956551-1 Hardback, 256 pp. $45.00
Since the collapse of communism, religion is playing an increasingly important role in global affairs. Religious groups throughout the world — ranging from Muslim organizations to the Russian Orthodox Church1 — are asserting their influence, often castigating the United States and its religious mores in the process.
In his new study, Professor of history Thomas Albert Howard, the Director of the Jerusalem & Athens Forum, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts, reminds us that there exists another, longstanding religious divide between two regions with close political and cultural ties — the United States and Europe (Howard focuses on Great Britain, France, and Germany, which he calls, using the term of the social theorist Edward Shils, European “centers.”)
Howard does underscore that Alexis de Tocqueville, the well-known nineteenth-century French observer of the New World, praised Americans for their ability to harmonize faith and democracy. In an oft-cited passage, Tocqueville remarked that
upon my arrival in the United States [in the 1830s] it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye. As I prolonged my stay, I perceived the great political consequences that flowed from this new state of things. In France I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions. But in America I found them united intimately with one another: they reigned together on the same soil.
But Tocqueville, in his optimism about religion in the U.S. — freedom is good for religion, and religion is good for freedom — is more the European exception than the rule, Howard argues (with Mormons and Great Awakenings receiving special disdain from Old World commentators). In the words of Talleyrand, the gourmet French diplomat briefly exiled in the New World in the mid-1790s, “the states of America are a country where there are thirty-two religions, but there is only one course at dinner — and it’s bad.”2 Another Frenchman, Achille Murat, put it less delicately in 1832: “It must be admitted that looking at the physiognomy of the United States, its religion is the only feature which disgusts a foreigner.” And consider a more contemporary example (not mentioned by Howard): the United Pentecostal camp meeting scene, in a British comedian’s hit film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a sharp satire on the U.S. and its religiosity.3
The bulk of Howard’s book is devoted to explaining why a religion-based, centuries-old European anti-Americanism (this is the word he uses) continues to this day. He identifies two strands of thought, both stemming from reactions — negative and positive — to the French Revolution. (Indeed, European commentary on the United States has often been commentary on Europe itself).
There is, first, “The Traditional Critique” (chapter 2) by the reactionary right, which “received its most forceful expression among those with a vested interest in the Ancien Régime” of throne and altar, who dismissed the U.S. for “cultural mediocrity and, not least,” for “an atomizing, anarchic spirit of religious zeal.”
The second strand (chapter 3, the longest in the book), “The Secularist Critique,” surfaces later in the nineteenth century. “[I]t did so not as a negative reaction to modernity, but as a positive, engaged devotion to it.” According to scholar Gret Haller (cited by Howard) the Continental revolutionary tradition (of which the secularist critique is a part), wanted “the freedom of the state in order to implement freedom from religion, whereas the United States needed freedom from the state in order to implement the freedom of religion.”
The secularist critique, which considered the American revolution not a true revolution (in the words of Hegel, “Let us… set the New World aside, along with its associated dreams, and return to the Old World, the theater of world history”) developed “into a powerful, distinctly leftist European tradition of criticism and repugnance toward the ‘sectarian,’ ‘puritanical,’ ‘moralizing’ cast of mind found in actual American society,” Howard notes.
It thus appears that, in matters of religion, America, for Europe, is an “anomaly” and “an intriguing ‘research problem,’” to cite Howard. No wonder Europeans found George W. Bush (not mentioned by Howard), with his publicly proclaimed devotion to his God4, a deviation from their civilization’s “normal” history.
In his final two chapters, Howard outlines the sympathy for religious life in America expressed by the Protestant Swiss-German church historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893) and the Catholic French theologian Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), both little-known foreigners who lived and taught in the United States for extended periods, unlike so many European critics of American religiosity.
Dr. John H. Brown, a Foreign Service officer for more than 20 years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy.