Tony Judt on Denis Lacorne

Denis Lacorne, Religion in America: A Political History

As Denis Lacorne makes his way around the United States to discuss his new book Religion in America: A Political History (Bostonians: You’ll have two chances to see him today!), we decided to post an excerpt from Tony Judt’s foreword to the book (you can the read it in its entirety here):

In his latest book, Religion in America: A Political History, Lacorne does more than just offer an overview of the place of religious practice and religious conflict in the making of America (though he does this in a way that American students and general readers will find extremely helpful); he integrates his story into another story, that of the French fascination with America and the insights and misunderstandings to which it has led. He observes that even the earliest commentators, men like Jean de Crèvecœur, were disposed to conflate the Puritan and republican strands in colonial political culture—whereas, as Lacorne demonstrates, these were juxtaposed and often contradictory elements that surfaced at different occasions and create not so much a complexity of American roots as a tension between alternative models for the good society.

These tensions run through American history, and the contradictions they pose to observers are well illustrated in the work of both the greatest commentators—Tocqueville, most obviously—and the most superficial. Nor do the tensions run conveniently along political lines. The populist tradition that fed into the modern Democratic Party was at least as religious as the more conventionally Protestant Republican heritage: the defense of dissenting Baptists or persecuted Catholics could take radical and oppositional form to the power structure of a republic run by and for a small commercial elite. Indeed, the emphasis on the separation of church and state long favored minority religions frightened at the prospect of their suppression at the hands of the dominant mainstream heritage of the Episcopalians.

Conversely, the established elite—having no need of religion to support their authority from the late nineteenth century onward—were quite content to see religion retreat to the private sphere, but took great care to emphasize the need to keep all forms of faith and practice equally clear of public favor. From the point of view of the foreigner, and particularly the French observer with a Cartesian preference for rigorous logic and sustained categories, the periodic resurfacing of these issues in the form of juridical revision of the interpretation of the First Amendment was a source of confusion: surely these things had been settled once and for all in 1789?

But the fungibility of American public affairs, and the shifting sentiments brought about by war and fears of war, have reintroduced God into American politics in ways that confuse foreigners. Here in America we now sign off our coins, our pledges of allegiance, and even our public speeches with invocations of God. Americans today believe in their God (and very often the Devil) to an extent that others find mysterious. Indeed, in these respects the United States has more in common with Islamic or Hindu societies than it does with the rest of the “de-Christianized” West. There are churches everywhere in America and they are full.

And yet: as Denis Lacorne brings out well, this is not a token of the reestablishment of official Christianity. Even the most conservative and faith-based presidents of recent years have taken great care to distinguish between their own born-again or otherwise determined Christian practice, and the amorphous and widely varying commitments of their fellow citizens: “my fellow Americans” clearly addresses a world of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others besides, not to mention tens of millions of nonbelievers.

Thus it would be a foolish American politician indeed, or one whose sights were firmly set on a local horizon, who sought to emulate those European politicians—from Poland to Italy, from Germany to the Netherlands—who insist upon the “Christian” identity of Europe. In this respect, Americans are far more serious about their laïcité, at least collectively, than their unbelieving European confreres. To American observers, the European reluctance to admit Islamic Turkey into the European Union remains a mystery, parochial and self-destructive. And it is perhaps worth observing that French commentators and politicians—the first to damn America for its ultrareligiosity—are in the front line of those defending an implicitly Christian definition of “Europe” against the barbarians without.

The prospects for Jefferson’s “wall” separating church from state are perhaps better than people suppose. It doesn’t much matter—and Lacorne is very good on just why this is so—whether the occasional provincial courthouse displays the baby Jesus at Christmastime on its front lawn. But it does very much matter whether or not being Christian—or a particular kind of Christian—determines your prospects in public affairs in the republic.

Here, perhaps, Lacorne is rather generous. When Joseph Lieberman was selected by Al Gore as his vice-presidential running-mate in 2000, the American media fell over itself to congratulate the republic in welcoming a Jew as a potential head of state and government. When some pointed out that France, that notorious sinkhole of anti-Semitic prejudice, had to date elected five Jewish heads of government, there were cries of disbelief. So we should not rush to suppose that the real as distinct from the symbolic separation of church and state in America is and always has been unbreached. To the contrary: it took nearly two centuries to elect a Catholic to the White House and may take nearly as long again before we see a Muslim uncontentiously installed there. On the other hand, much the same is true of France.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. We stand always to gain from looking at ourselves through the lens of another, and Denis Lacorne is a reliable and enlightening guide. Moreover, by moving insensibly back and forward between Parisian perspectives and American practices, he pulls us a little closer to the rest of humanity. The illusion of American exceptionalism is one of the more dangerous myths in which this country has wallowed, separating itself in its own eyes from everyone else. If we did not appreciate just how isolating this was in years gone by, we should surely do so now.

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