Book Review: Religion, Politics and European Perceptions

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.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Religion, Politics and European Perceptions”

  1. The thesis of this book sounds interesting, however, it would be difficult to judge the differences between America and Europe, if one had not visited or lived in both. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America accurately described the differences between Americans and Europeans in the 1830s when it came to religion. Tocqueville also mentioned the effects that the Puritans had on American society by emphasizing the importance of religion and political freedom. As a whole, America has traditionally had a smaller government than its European counterparts. Smaller government tends to allow aspects of civil society, like religion, to be able to flourish and influence people. Like you noted, freedom allows for vitality and the growth of a strong civil society because people are involved in their churches and communities.

  2. It is surprising to me that the religion was the most commented on by Europeans (whether positively or negatively depending on their political party and personal beliefs). I am glad to hear that the author demonstrated ways where America’s unique traits are positive. I would be curious to know how Europeans opinions of America has changed over the years, especially as we’ve grown to become more and more like Europe. Are we still exceptional to them? Hated? Or just slowly following behind their cultural movements? Specifically how have these opinions changed in the past 50 years.

  3. It does not surprise me that many Europeans have an inaccurate view of the relationship between church and state in the United State, as I do not believe Americans themselves truly understand the relationship of church and state. Some Americans hold to the original intent of freedom of religion, which as Thomas Jefferson states in his letter to the Danbury Baptists means Congress shall, “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, protecting the church from the state. However Some Americans hold that separation of church and state means you can practice your religion as long as you do not bring your beliefs into the public sphere of influence such as the government, protecting the state from religion. Regardless of your opinion of the relationship between church and state in America, it does not surprise me the Europeans are confused since we Americans have not figured it out yet ourselves.

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