Demented faith or godless mammon

Religion in America: A Political History, by Denis Lacorne, Columbia University Press, RRP$29.50, £20.50

The astonishing battle over fiscal policy that has raged in Washington these past months, bringing the US to the brink of default, is a quarrel about the proper role of the state. But its intensity is impossible to understand unless you recognise that deeper values are also in contention. At a critical point in last week’s talks, members of the GOP delegation from South Carolina left to seek guidance. They repaired to a chapel to pray.

The fight has not been about politics alone. It is also a clash of values – world views whose adherents, lately, have no regard for each other. Religion is undoubtedly part of the mix.

Since its sweeping victory in last year’s elections, the Tea Party insurgency has radicalised Republicans in Congress. Many of the newcomers are social conservatives, and many of those are visibly and zealously religious. The rise of the Tea Party has widened the cultural gap between Republicans and the more secular or quietly religious Democrats.

This makes Religion in America timely, even though its approach to the subject is oblique. Denis Lacorne stands in a long line of French scholars who have looked at the US in all its strangeness and tried to make sense of it – and his book is a dual history. It aims to understand the role religion has played in the development of America’s idea of itself, and to do that partly by examining what French commentators “from Voltaire and Tocqueville to Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy” have made of it all.

Perhaps that seems too complicated or academic a purpose for the general reader. It turns out to work superbly.

Lacorne is an acute yet friendly observer of US politics and culture. The parts of the book that form a straightforward essay on religion in America are wise, sympathetic, and vividly written. But his weaving of this account into the story of France’s long obsession with America is fascinating in its own right, and casts light on the larger theme. Sorting through the insights and misconceptions of his predecessors is unexpectedly revealing: quite often funny, too.

The French don’t know whether to find the US admirable or appalling; dementedly religious or godlessly devoted to mammon; a modern secular democracy or a backward Anglo-Protestant theocracy. It was ever thus. Lacorne finds the roots of the confusion in two rival narratives of America’s national identity.

The first comes down from the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers, and the founding documents of the American project: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. This is the creation story (forgive the expression) of a secular republic that self-consciously overthrew established religion, and built a “wall of separation” between church and state.

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.

When Keith Ellison, a Muslim, was sworn in as a member of Congress in 2007, Lacorne relates, Americans wondered whether he would swear a civil oath, or pledge on the Bible, or on the Koran. He placed his hand on the Koran: a copy that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Only in America.

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