Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

America in the European Mind

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

America in the European Mind

Article excerpt

In recent years, there's been no shortage of commentary on European ami-Americanism and the divide between Americans and Europeans on a number of issues-religion, most of all.

The reasons for such a divide are complex and tied both to history and to how we think about history. For Americans, our national story is intimately connected to tales of devout, beleaguered Europeans leaving the Old World for religious freedom. It's a story in which prominent Catholics, such as Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, have pointed to the American experiment as a means of helping the Catholic Church, roiled by the militant anticlericalism of post-1789 Europe, come to regard liberal democracy and religious freedom in a positive light.

In short, the story we often tell about ourselves suggests a measure of European sympathy for the American experiment. But another distinctly European "narrative construction" of America in general, and American religious life in particular, deserves more attention. It is well-developed, laden with invocatory power, and familiar to Europe's knowledge classes, not to mention to what the sociologist Peter Berger calls America's own "Europeanized intelligentsia." Attentiveness to this narrative provides a more nuanced understanding of contemporary anti-Americanism.

Intrinsic to this second narrative is the assumption that America's early experiment in voluntary religion constitutes a worrisome special path to modernity, especially in view of the high levels of religious belief that this system has since fostered. This special path, in turn, helps account for why the United States presents a political "anomaly" on the world stage in contrast to normal (meaning properly secularized) Western industrialized nations. It also helps explain Europeans' fascination with American religious life and their inability to translate this fascination from caricature and condescension to understanding and engagement.

This secular worry about America has roots on both the right and the left in Europe. For traditionalists, it is a manifestation of a residually aristocratic, culturally organicist, pre-democratic spirit, uneasy with modern economic and political freedoms. For progressives, it is a by-product of a secularist vision of historical progress born in the Enlightenment and die French Revolution. But for both, the United States represents a problem, an inadequacy, and a flawed historical trajectory.

To the conservative, nostalgic imagination of nineteendi-century Europe, die American religious experiment represented a dangerous plunge into religious confusion and cultural anarchy. The United States sets "altar against altar," noted Austria's Count Metternich, and thus die new nation was an abiding affront to Europe's religious heritage of established churches. The great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt defined Americans as a people who "renounce history," whose religious life is at once parasitically attached to Old World faiths but prone to "absurd forms" on the American frontier. Upon arriving in the United States in 1844, the Reformed theologian Philip Schaff worried that Christianity in America was destined for a career of disorder and splintering: "Tendencies, which had found no political room to unfold themselves in other lands [are] wrought here without restraint," he wrote. "Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade.... What is to come of such confusion is not now to be seen."

The Anglicans Frances Trollope and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce reached comparable conclusions. After residing for several years in the Midwest, Trollope published in 1832 The Domestic Manners of the Americans. Her portrait of America as a nation of revivalist zealots became a bestseller in British literary circles. It is "impossible to remain many weeks" in the United States, she wrote, "without being struck with the strange anomalies produced by its religious system." Bishop Wilberforce once opined that "every fantastic opinion thal has disturbed the peace of Christendom has been reproduced in stranger growth on the other side of the Atlantic," and the result threatened to "obliterate civilization. …

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