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

Thomas Albert Howard
Published by Oxford University Press in 2011

A new release by Gordon College’s Thomas Albert Howard, God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide is a thoroughly researched examination of the contrasting religious paths between Europeans and Americans. Professor Howard, winner of the Lilly Fellows Program Book Award for 2007 for Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University, here has continued his first-rate historical scholarship.

Using the lens of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European intellectuals, Howard explores how these Europeans understood American religiosity, especially given their divergent contexts: the secularity of Europe and the persistent religious underpinnings of America. Noting contemporary expressions of disdain for America’s continuing alignment with religion, Howard contends that a better understanding of past explanations of such steadfastness is useful for putting the more recent remarks into context. More pointedly, Howard asserts the sometimes condescension toward America’s faith persuasions is, to some degree, born of long-standing historical narratives.

Moving beyond Alexis de Tocqueville’s oft-quoted appraisal of American religiosity, Howard’s analysis progresses in two directions. First, he examines negative assessments both from the left (America viewed as overly religious) and the right (America’s religion is too distinct from Europe and thus represents bad religion). Second, he explores two European elites who each wrote about and lived in the United States, but who have perhaps not been given as much attention as their work deserves: Philip Schaff, a Swiss-German Protestant church historian, and Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher.

Howard begins, then, with the negative assessments of American religion. The tra-ditionalist critique entailed the assumption that by “transplanting beliefs, traditions and institutions from the Old World to the New,” Americans cultivated a weakened religious soil. And, while many voiced these criticisms, there were important nuances between them and Howard separates them into three categories (30).

First, British intellectuals who were loyal to the Anglican Church saw in American popular democracy a weakening of the “rightly-constituted authority” (31). The presence of Methodist camp-meetings and revivals, the communities of Millerites and Shakers, and the explosive growth of Mormons all indicated deficiencies in practice that, had the religious authority been rightly in place, could be avoided. To illustrate, Howard notes Frances (Fanny) Trollope who commented in 1832: “It was impossible to remain many weeks in the country without being struck with the strange anomalies produced by its religious system. … The whole people appear to be divided into an almost endless variety of religious factions” (40).

Second, those representing the Romantic movement of the Continent saw in the “divisions and populism, commercial spirit, abstract constitutionalism” (31) a clear deviation from the religious past thoroughly imbued with culture and decorum. “Colonies do not attain, even remotely, to the level of the mother-land’s civilization” quipped Heinrich von Treitschke in the 1860s (55). Yet, the Romantic Movement was not the only group to level this criticism, and Howard clearly demonstrates this continuing thread through the likes of Max Weber and Martin Heidegger.

Third, those with Roman Catholic commitments viewed Protestantism taking root in America as the dangerous result of “private judgment” (31). Editor Joseph Edmund Jorg, for example, claimed America’s Sola scriptura was creating not a theocracy but a “Bibleocracy” (73). As the individual read without corresponding assistance, religion simply became subjective.

Shifting from the conservative critique that emphasized the “ungainly or scattered forms of religion produced by popular democracy and religious disestablishment,” to the secularist critique punctuated by a view of Americans as religiously gullible, Howard establishes sev-eral threads of the latter assessment. Noting at length their variations, they held in common the notion that the French Revolution was primary to the secondary American one; that forms of religion were “something that humanity required liberating from, not providing freedom for;” and that Europe provided the model for modernity and others should work to “catch up” to their position (88; italics added). Of course it is the second strand that continues to hold sway and is, as Howard notes, often taken for granted without further examination by intellectuals today. Thus, the pervasive assumptions of the secularist critique not only form the narratives of past historical analysis, but infiltrate modern narratives, too.

Not all Europeans had negative assessments of religion in America, however, and Howard goes to great length to demonstrate the positive work of Philip Schaff and Jacques Maritain. While their backgrounds were diverse, both lived in the United States for an ex-tended period of time and both sought to explain the society, including its religion, to their European audiences. Indeed, as Howard claims: “Fathoming and explaining the ‘transatlantic religious divide,’ and redressing the European caricatures, emerged as a notable aspect of each man’s intellectual vocation” (138).

Indebted to the Hegelian model of historical analysis as well as a Protestant-leaning bias, Schaff saw in American religious sectarianism the potential for a maturing faith. A break from the old Constantinian model of state-supported religion, America, with its freedoms and its “uncivilized” frontier, offered the opportunity for a new expression of Christianity. Even though divisions within American Protestantism were problematic, Schaff believed this nascent movement illustrated a necessary progression over an outdated Catholicism.

On the other hand, Maritain, a Catholic and a French ambassador to the Vatican, countered the widespread European anti-Americanism with more nuanced assessments to the point of even commending America for its unique position in the world. Specifically, he suggested the spiritual and religious underpinnings of life in America contributed to “human flourishing” (186). And, for Maritain, this flourishing grew from the roots of its voluntary faith and practice, a reality that American Catholics should understand and embrace (188).

Tracing their intellectual progressions in light of their firsthand experiences in the New World, Howard adeptly demonstrates that Schaff and Maritain came to see the “transatlantic religious divide” differently precisely because their lived experiences provided insight that no amount of examination from afar could establish. Speaking of Maritain, Howard asserts, “…his valuation of the United States represents the triumph of experience over theory” (175).

God and the Atlantic is an intellectual study of considerable depth and breadth. It is remarkably useful in ascertaining the conservative Right and liberal Left perspectives of European thought as it seeks to explain religion in America. Most importantly, however, Howard clearly establishes the change in perspective that firsthand experience can afford. And so at least one clear lesson for readers of this book is in order to provide the best expla-nations of historical events, one needs to explore them from multiple vantage points, and, if possible, to live in the context before thinking one has understood it fully.

Cite this article
Kendra Weddle Irons, “God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 445-447

Kendra Weddle Irons

Reviewed by Kendra Weddle Irons, Texas Wesleyan University