Religion in America

Religion in America: A Political History

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Religion in America
    Book Description:

    Denis Lacorne identifies two competing narratives defining the American identity. The first narrative, derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, is essentially secular. Associated with the Founding Fathers and reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, this line of reasoning is predicated on separating religion from politics to preserve political freedom from an overpowering church. Prominent thinkers such as Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Jean-Nicolas Démeunier, who viewed the American project as a radical attempt to create a new regime free from religion and the weight of ancient history, embraced this American effort to establish a genuine "wall of separation" between church and state.

    The second narrative is based on the premise that religion is a fundamental part of the American identity and emphasizes the importance of the original settlement of America by New England Puritans. This alternative vision was elaborated by Whig politicians and Romantic historians in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is still shared by modern political scientists such as Samuel Huntington. These thinkers insist America possesses a core, stable "Creed" mixing Protestant and republican values. Lacorne outlines the role of religion in the making of these narratives and examines, against this backdrop, how key historians, philosophers, novelists, and intellectuals situate religion in American politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52640-1
    Subjects: Religion, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    The outsider, it is said, sees more clearly. To be sure, there are exceptions: to understand a closed microsociety it helps to be an insider with all an insider’s clues and codes. But as a rule, the view from afar has much to recommend it. The French in particular have long specialized in this perspective: some of the best accounts of Russia, for example, are by nineteenth-century French travelers, and it was the French philosopher Montesquieu who displaced himself into the perspective of the “Persian” observer in order to offer perceptive insights onto his own countrymen.

    But nowhere have the...

    (pp. xv-xxii)

    There is general agreement that the United States is the most religious of advanced Western democracies. The level of religious observance in the country is unusually high and political language is imbued with religious values and religious references. “In God We Trust” is the national motto of the United States and enshrined on its currency, “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and an impressive number of elected officials—members of Congress, cabinet officers, and presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush—have claimed a special relationship with the Almighty following a...

  5. 1 America, the Land of Religious Utopias
    (pp. 1-21)

    America in Voltaire’s time was a distant and little-known territory. Intriguing reports from travelers, missionaries, soldiers, and adventurers confirmed the idea that the New England settlers were not just merchants or farmers but also ideologues, testing new ideas on a large and still virgin territory. America was seen as a laboratory for political, social, and religious experimentation. And it was above all the blossoming of new religions that drew the attention of French observers looking for a better world. But not all French philosophes could travel to America. They either stayed in France, like Abbé Raynal, and imagined the new...

  6. 2 The Rehabilitation of the Puritans
    (pp. 22-39)

    In the eighteenth century, philosophes such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Raynal, and scholars, essayists, and travelers such as Démeunier, Brissot, Volney, and La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt were skeptics often accused by their opponents of being deists or atheists. Religion occupied a negative place in Enlightenment thought because it was seen as an obstacle to the progress of humanity. Left to itself, religion could lead only to anarchy and to the bloody disorders of the wars of religion resulting in an endless struggle between the forces of “superstition” (Catholicism) and “enthusiasm” (Protestantism).

    If civil society was not pacified by the introduction of new...

  7. 3 Evangelical Awakenings
    (pp. 40-60)

    In the preceding chapter, I attempted to show that the birth of American democracy could not simply be inferred from a narrowly defined Puritan “point of departure,” as argued by Tocqueville. The Puritans did not understand “democracy” as we understand it today, and it is the political experience of the elites of the revolutionary period that gave the United States its truly republican character and its modern national identity.

    The most prominent Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison—were not very religious (most of them were deists) and their primary concern was not to build a...

  8. 4 The Bible Wars
    (pp. 61-80)

    The reader may recall Tocqueville’s assertion that the spirit of liberty was fully compatible with the spirit of religion, as the New England Pilgrims, he believed, had demonstrated. In maintaining that religion and civil liberty were, despite appearances, not contradictory phenomena but rather seemed “to support each other,” Tocqueville was repeating in his own fashion the predominant view of American historians and political leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century.¹ He was also confirming the views of the major liberal thinkers of his time. Before Tocqueville, Mme de Staël, Benjamin Constant, and François Guizot had all asserted that...

  9. 5 Religion, Race, and National Identity
    (pp. 81-103)

    As the last two chapters have shown, for nineteenth-century political elites the national identity of the United States was rooted in the myth of a Puritan past rehabilitated by eminent historians. This conception of a fundamentally Anglo-Protestant nation was still alive in the early twentieth century, and even came back into favor in the twenty-first century among some intellectuals, the most prominent of whom was the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington contended that American identity had two essential components: a set of racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious characteristics introduced by the first New England colonists, to which had...

  10. 6 A Godless America
    (pp. 104-121)

    Between 1927 and 1932 a number of influential novelists, historians, philosophers, political scientists, and journalists were seemingly in agreement that God was dead and nowhere was his absence more obvious than in America. Or, more precisely, a new pagan divinity had taken the place of the Christian God: “the almighty dollar,” technology, mechanization, or mass production. These new gods were the emanation of an industrial society that was displaying all the failings of hyper-mechanization: gigantism, standardized assembly-line work (Taylorism), industrial paternalism encouraging consumption (Fordism), and cheap consumer goods. Production was a nonstop process and the slogan of the age was...

  11. 7 The Rise of the Religious Right
    (pp. 122-139)

    In the preceding chapter, we examined the remarkably similar worldviews of a small group of French intellectuals who—despite their differences—all proclaimed the death of God in the United States and harshly denounced the mechanization and mass production that in their view dominated American society. This critique was accompanied by a call for a spiritual revolution to combat the world of greed, financial speculation, and material comfort and to restore fundamental human values. For these intellectuals, Soviet materialism was identical to American capitalism; it was only in Europe, caught between the pincers of the two great powers, that a...

  12. 8 The Wall of Separation Between Church and State
    (pp. 140-160)

    Throughout this book, we have seen that religion in the United States is both familiar to the French and very hard for them to understand. Familiar because it has been the object of numerous investigations, scholarly commentaries, and often peremptory assertions. Hard to understand because it is situated in a complex and contradictory historical world, punctuated by advances and retreats, secular periods and religious moments. This world, which is stratified like geological sediments, bears many visible traces—songs, mottos, oaths, commemorations—whose use has sometimes disconcerted French and indeed American observers. At first sight, religion dominates the social and political...

  13. EPILOGUE: Obama’s Faith-Friendly Secularism
    (pp. 161-170)

    What is the place Barack Obama has accorded to religion in the public sphere? Initially it was considerable. From his speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, when he was a junior senator from Illinois, to his election as president in 2008, he constantly emphasized the importance of religion in his personal life and in the political life of the country. With the new priorities of 2009 and 2010—the economic crisis and the attempt at comprehensive reform of the healthcare system—the president’s religious concerns faded into the background, and indeed were not even mentioned in his State of...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 171-208)
    (pp. 209-226)