I just finished reading another interesting book, at least to me it was interesting. And I think I can convince you that you should consider reading it too. The book, authored by Thomas Albert Howard, is entitled God and the Atlantic: America, Europe and the Religious Divide (Oxford, 2011). It runs to 256 pages, including bibliography and index, a very manageable length for an academic book. The subject of the book is a historical exploration of the European attitude toward the United States in terms of its religion and politics, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, with application to an understanding of current European attitudes. The thesis is pretty straightforward: That Europeans on the Right and Left have generally, with a few exceptions, viewed America with suspicion, disdain or, at best indifference. This is pretty much what I expected would be the case, but Howard shows, through the marshalling of a great deal of evidence, surveying many different individuals, that the range of attitudes was a bit more complex than we often think. Though dispositions were frequently negative, the reasons varied widely. And, as I indicated above, a few Europeans, mostly transplanted to America, developed positive attitudes, though not always uncritical.
Two things about this book stood out. First, the author showed how European thinkers perceived the relationship of church and state in America. Of course they weren’t always accurate. In fact, many had not even visited the country. Many who did still could not find anything good to report, either because they saw too much “free” religion and no state church (the political and religious conservatives) or because they saw too much religion in general and the importance of its influence on politics (the liberals—nineteenth century European liberals), or because they perceived religion as too pervasive everywhere (and that Americans actually tended to believe it), limiting the “revolutionary spirit”(Marx, Engels and socialists). Exceptions included the justly famous Alexis De Tocqueville, but also the less well-known, but to me, fascinating, German church historian Philip Schaff. These actually visited America and (Schaff) moved there, gaining a better understanding of what made the nation unique and actually, in their eyes, in most ways, better than European nations. One such feature in the optimists eyes was the freedom Americans possessed In every realm of life. Freedom in their estimation, rather than produce anarchy, produced both a vitality and a restraint, the opposite of what the pessimists saw or perceived.
Throughout the book lessons could be learned about why Europeans have persisted in looking askance on this nation. These lessons ate valuable, but they also reinforce for me that, though the United States is by no means a perfect nation, it is exceptional, mostly in a positive sense. But regardless of how the reader thinks about America, this book is a valuable historical contribution. As a nice side-benefit, Howard includes a useful section on the secularization thesis, a much-discussed historical problem.