God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide

Article by   April 2013
A Truly Divisive Pond

howardgodatlantic93.jpgA Review of Thomas Albert Howard, God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (Oxford University Press, 2013) PB, $29.95

One of the most striking differences between the USA, my adopted residence, and the UK, my homeland, is the connection between politics and religion. Back home, there is an Established Church and yet the language of religion is studiedly absent from political discourse. 'We don't do God' as the chief spin doctor Prime Minister Blair once famously declared. By contrast, in the USA there is a First Amendment which prevents the federal establishment of religion and which has come to mean that there is a radical separation of church and state. Yet here the language and performance of politics is suffused with religious idioms and gestures.

This difference is one facet of what is often thought of as American exceptionalism. The idea that America is exceptional is the way that, for example, the secularization thesis has failed to play out in its culture in the way that it has in Europe. In fact, as Thomas Howard hints at in this fascinating book, it may well be that the persistence of religion as a force in American culture only looks exceptional when one assumes Europe as normative; in the rest of the world, religion of various sorts is alive and well. Perhaps Europe is the exception after all.

Howard's analysis of the Atlantic divide operates at both the macro and micro levels. At the macro level, he outlines the objections which both the European right and left made to the American experiment. He is particularly good in dissecting and dismissing the secularization thesis. In fact, when he treats the left's criticisms of America, he does an excellent job in demonstrating how the thesis, allegedly a piece of scientific fact, is more an ideological construct which has taken on the aura of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the rhetoric of the secularists.

The traditionalists he divides into three categories. The first, the 'sophisticates abroad,' looked askance at the severing of the state-church link. They saw this as facilitating a proliferation of sects, of which phenomenon Mormonism was the apotheosis. They also saw the democratic exuberance of American society playing over into church governance and placed the ministry at the mercy of what the people would and would not tolerate. 

The second, the German Romantics and Idealists, saw America as lacking 'spirit.' For example, Arthur Schopenhauer considered the American attempt to ground society in human rights rather than a strong state, as a fool's errand. Behind such critiques, from the early nineteenth century through Weber and Troeltsch down to Heidegger in the twentieth, one can see the powerful influence of Hegel and his confidence in the metaphysical importance of the strong State.

The third group, the Roman Catholics, exhibited a number of concerns with the American situation. One was obvious: freedom of religion led to the proliferation of sects, of which Mormonism became the primary (and most feared) example, the ultimate triumph of Protestantism. Then there was the fear that American freedom and liberal ideals would themselves percolate into the Roman Catholic communities and thus subvert the authority of the Church. 

On the left, the persistence of religion was (and is still) seen as sign of the cultural backwardness of the new country, whatever its economic, technological and political might be. Ironically, Hegel, though perhaps the embodiment in many ways of a conservative, stands as the unwitting father of the great leftist critiques. He saw the state as having responsibility to drive culture but retained a type of Christian metaphysic in his project; his young intellectual progeny took this to the next level. Marx, of course, is central to this narrative, which continues its tedious path to the present day. The objections of the European New Left to anything America might choose to do whilst supporting religious extremism and winking at human rights abuses in other parts of the world are as predictable as England's exit from the World Cup.

At the micro level, Howard examines the careers of two Europeans, Philip Schaff and Jacques Maritain, who spent much of their adult careers in the United States. Both men's lives witness to the fact that first-hand experience of life (and not just tourism) in America often softens European attitudes to the same. In part, this is no doubt the result of the fact that knowledge of a concept is one thing; knowledge of individual people quite another. 

Schaff was a Swiss Reformed theologian who arrived in America via German shores and was initially something of a critic of the American experiment. Over the years, however, he came to have a more nuanced, and more positive, appreciation of his adopted country and his criss-crossing of the Atlantic made him something of an advocate for America in the Old World. To summarise his position, Howard describes him as seeing that, while America had had no Constantine (and thus no powerful state to drive forward Christian culture), neither had it had a Diocletian. The result was a church which enjoyed friendly separation from the state and, in a strange way, represented the triumph of the Protestant impulse, a triumph made possible by the fact that America represented something new in history, a land unencumbered by prior social structures.

Jacques Maritain, the great Thomist philosopher, spent two decades in the US. His development of a Catholic humanism was profoundly affected by his American experience and his observation of the democratic processes there. Indeed, his thought lives on through his impact on Catholic social and political thought in the USA, as well as through his role in helping formulate the notion of human rights. Maritain saw the great emancipatory potential of the American experiment yet he also understood the dangers in democracy as an absolute: his Thomism led him to see the dangers of a citizenry driven solely by appetites rather than by wisdom. 

In reflecting on Howard's narrative and analysis it seems sadly clear that Maritain's concerns for the dangerously anarchic nature of a democracy shaped by appetites and shorn of wisdom is surely coming to pass before our eyes. Even in the Roman Catholic Church we see this: the widespread rejection by the laity of teaching on contraception and the routine 'personally opposed but....' logic of pro-abortion Roman Catholic politicians would seem to indicate that the fears of an earlier generation that American ideals, rather than church dogma, would win the day even within the body of the faithful, have been vindicated.

More broadly, pop culture has triumphed over more traditional religion as the source of what passes for the wise, the good and the true, and aesthetics and taste have by and large come to dominate moral (and also legal) discourse. Debates about the definition of marriage, and the fact that what happens in the privacy of a bedroom is now the most significant public issue of our day, are indicative of this mess. And perhaps therein lies the tragic dilemma of the American experiment: an attempt to marry ideals of freedom, happiness and the good life to a radical democracy was always doomed. People do not seem to want civic freedom and lives ordered to a virtuous end; they want sex, iPods, individual rights and reality T.V. No Hegelian synthesis here, just a centre that seems no longer capable of holding.

A couple of omissions surprised me: Antonio Gramsci is mentioned only once in passing. As the intellectual fount of European New Left thinking, his material on America deserved more attention. Further, in 1839 (while still an Anglican) John Henry Newman wrote a fascinating essay entitled 'The Anglo-American Church' in which he was reasonably enthusiastic about the religious situation in America. No doubt his views were somewhat shaped by the origins of the Oxford Movement as a response to the 1833 Irish Church Temporalities Bill, but he clearly liked the American way of church and saw a strong episcopacy as a means of protecting ministers (and thus doctrine) from populist sentiment. Given Newman's own intellectual pilgrimage and prominence, it would have been interesting to see this piece addressed in the narrative. Most surprising was that I did not notice any reference to G.K.Chesterton's What I Saw in America. This book is surely one of the most brilliant and amusing accounts of the US. by an outsider and religious pundit, and one which offers an appreciative account of the American people. 

This is a short, densely-written, brilliant book that deserves to be read and pondered by any who wonder why America and Europe relate to each other as they do and what the future might hold for religion in both cultures. 

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012).

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