Perhaps today’s financial-market news has put you in mind of the need to square accounts with your Maker. Or perhaps not. In any case, I warmly recommend Religion in America: A Political History by Denis Lacorne. The author is French and his book, as I explain in this FT review, is a dual history. Its main theme is religion’s role in American politics and culture, but Lacorne is also very interested in the way the French have considered that question over the centuries. Don’t think this makes the book too academic: Lacorne’s approach is illuminating and entertaining. From my review:
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.
It’s a splendid book.