Demented Faith or Godless Mamon: The Financial Times on Denis Lacorne's "Religion in America"

Denis Lacorne, Religion in America

We conclude our week-long focus on Religion in America: A Political History, by Denis Lacorne with some excerpts from a review of the book in the Financial Times.

In his review, Clive Crook praises Religion in America for its timeliness as well as its ability to weave together two histories: the role of religion in the United States and what French commentators, including Voltaire, Tocqueville, Sartre, and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Crook also cites Lacorne’s focus on two narratives which have competed to define America’s identity. These include the story of it being a secular state which separates church and state and a “Neopuritan” identity. Crook writes:

The second narrative, which Lacorne calls “Neopuritan”, denies the radical break and sees the American project as “the climax of a continuous progression of freedom starting with the Reformation and culminating with the first New England Puritan colonies”. This is America as the “City upon a Hill” – a biblical phrase used in a sermon by John Winthrop to the first Massachusetts colonists, and co-opted by John F. Kennedy and then by Ronald Reagan more than three centuries later. It sees the American creed as an indissoluble blend of Protestant and republican values.

Then again, Kennedy was a Catholic and Reagan was not religious. Lacorne’s point – and it is surely correct – is that both stories are true. This is what makes America so perplexing, not just to Voltaire and Sartre, but to Americans as well.

This is a country whose highest court outlawed prayer in state schools, and where taxpayer-funded Christmas nativity displays invite prosecution; yet where children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which (since revision in 1954) declares the US to be “one nation under God”. What president – certainly not Barack Obama – neglects to end a speech by saying, “God bless the United States of America”? “In God We Trust,” says the dollar bill. The French love that one.

In phases, the two narratives gain or lose prominence, and their respective adherents become more or less angry. Lacorne applauds the American ideal of a “faith-friendly secularism”, in which people of all faiths can feel welcome. Or, for that matter, people of no faith: he notes that Mr Obama’s inaugural address was the first ever to acknowledge that some Americans do not believe in God.

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