In recent years, there’s been no shortage of commentary on European anti-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 the French Revolution. But for both, the United States represents a problem, an inadequacy, and a flawed historical trajectory.
To the conservative, nostalgic imagination of nineteenth-century Europe, the 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 the 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 that 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.”
A variant, aristocratic strain of anti-Americanism vis-a-vis religion—akin to, even if also different from, conservative nostalgia—was articulated among German university elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although generally not as religiously traditional as Trollope or Wilberforce, fin-de-si?cle German academic mandarins believed that their worldview, embodied in an internationally renowned university system and derived from a highly intellectualized Protestantism, best preserved the values of authentic culture, one capable of producing a Goethe, Schiller, or Kant. By contrast, America represented a utilitarian, mass civilization in which individualistic and commercial interests suffocated intellectual and spiritual ones. One finds this sentiment expressed by figures as diverse as Adolf von Harnack, Ernst Troeltsch, Oswald Spengler, Werner Sombart, and, not least, Max Weber, whose memorable metaphor of modernity as an “iron cage” is framed by explicit references to the United States.
The German mandarins’ depiction of America as a religiously deformed, economically utilitarian, and culturally shallow civilization reached its high point with Martin Heidegger, in his conception of America as the site of “cultural catastrophe.” “Americanism,” he wrote in 1942, as the Holocaust was underway, is “the most dangerous shape of boundlessness, because it appears in the form of a democratic middle-class way of life mixed with Christianity, and all this in an atmosphere that lacks completely any sense of history.” “Americanism,” as he put it elsewhere, “is the still unfolding . . . metaphysical essence of the emerging monstrousness of modern times.” The Heideggerian image of “the American” as a “mass man” devoid of history and culture, holding desperately to a naive, sectarian faith, became an article of certainty in the anti-American polemics of subsequent, au courant deep thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) and Jean Baudrillard (Amerique), whose influence in the modern academy, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been considerable.
Other European strains of anti-Americanism derive from what the French call la?cit?. These secularist strains attracted many prominent voices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From this vantage point, what distinguished the American system was not so much that it produced religious-cultural disarray but that it preserved variants of premodern religiosity all too well—sectarian variants, to be sure, but ones stubbornly impervious to enlightenment or elimination. Criticism from this angle focused more on cultural backwardness (a progressive fear) than on cultural anarchy (a conservative fear), although the two could often blend together. The United States had taken a peculiar road to modernity, in this interpretation, one congenitally lacking sufficient secularist impulses.
The philosophe Marquis de Condorcet typified this line of thinking in his Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795). While he admired the American Revolution, it ultimately came up short when compared to the French Revolution, whose animating impulses were “purer, more precise, and more profound than those that guided the Americans.” The French had “more successfully escaped every kind of prejudice,” and the revolution in France, Condorcet concluded, “was more far-reaching than that in America.”
For the progressive imagination of the nineteenth century, no thinker proved more influential than G.W.F. Hegel. In his scheme of world history, expressed in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, America is consigned to a peripheral status, deprived of genuine world-historical significance. America, he wrote, is separate from “the ground that the world’s history has taken place [on] until now. What has taken place in America so far is a mere echo of the Old World, and the expression of an alien vitality.” For this reason, he told the students who streamed from across Europe to pack his Berlin lecture hall to “set the New World aside, along with its associated dreams, and return to the Old World, the theater of world history.”
The American religious landscape presented a particular oddity to Hegel. While dismissive of confessional Christianity, he did not question Europe’s state-church model, and he had high regard for Prussia’s enlightened ministry of culture, which in his lifetime had managed to subordinate most ecclesiastical affairs to its oversight. What is more, Hegel championed liberalizing directions in Christianity, which he regarded as the ascendancy of conceptual Christianity (meaning ethics, freedom, and modern rationality) over representational Christianity (meaning the biblical narrative and confessional doctrines). To his mind, America was deficient because it lacked a state church, a European-style ministry of culture, and receptivity to the rationalized Protestantism that he sought to advance. From his seat in the Prussian capital, he saw America as a semi-enlightened, antistatist sectarian religious free-for-all, isolated from the important currents of world history. America is the land of “every sort of capriciousness,” he wrote, a “total arbitrariness.” “This explains the proliferation of sects, to the point of sheer madness.”
Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and numerous leftist thinkers expressed a mixture of wonder and disdain at America’s religious life. For the socialists, the American Revolution represented a successful bourgeois revolution, but one strangely resistant to the more important socialist revolution and an attendant secular historical consciousness. In contrast to the critical-intellectual conditions of Europe, high levels of religiosity had oddly persisted in the upstart nation. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx suggested that America’s more “conservative form of life” could in part be accounted for by the fact that “the feverishly youthful movement of material production, that has a new world to make its own, has left neither time nor opportunity for abolishing the old religious world.”
In this view, the United States stood one stage removed from the driving forces of world history, not only because class antagonisms in America had not hardened to the point of conflict but also because “the old religious world” had thus far been spared the critical conditions of European intellectual life. Instead, Old World religion had gotten tangled up in the New World’s “feverishly youthful movement of material production.”
This unholy marriage of bourgeois productivity and deep religiosity became a staple of later Marxist analyses of the United States. Indeed, it has colored European perceptions of America ever since. “The French Revolution, Hegelianism, and Marxism,” as the German political theorist Manfred Hennigsen has summed up, still “shape the matrix of political ideologies in Europe, and anti-Americanism is properly understood as the byproduct of these ideologies.”
To borrow terms from British political parlance, European anti-Americanism vis-a-vis religion has both a “Tory” and a “Whig” genealogy: It is nourished at the extremes of a distinctly European political spectrum. On the one hand, it derives from nostalgia for established churches and a host of attendant pre-democratic, culturally organicist sentiments; the United States represents a disquieting departure from a more salutary ecclesiastical establishmentarianism, and a robust exercise of religious freedom is met warily as an indulgence in subjective caprice and commercial interest. On the other hand, European derision of American religious life evinces a Whiggish mien, insofar as the French tradition of la?cit? and the master narratives of Hegelianism-Marxism are invoked, or subconsciously assumed, as the benchmark for appropriate historical development.
Despite their differences, Tory and Whig outlooks profitably suggest some common lines of inquiry relevant to present-day transatlantic divisions. Since these outlooks represent an outsider’s understanding of American religious life, they should not be dismissed out of hand. Whether accurate or not, an outside perspective contributes to an examined life. Some European criticisms of sectarianism, for example, should worry Christians concerned with the sad fragmentation of the church in this country, while the Marxist-inspired analysis of the interplay between market forces and religion can be quite trenchant.
Even so, anti-American voices are often impervious to the possibility that the American religious experiment might offer significant historical and political lessons. Indeed, the objections of Europe’s right and left have often regarded the American situation simply as the absence of certain specifically European conditions that are believed to be normative. Both views, one might argue, bear witness to an irrepressible European mission civilisatrice, with the United States serving Europe at once as poor learner, oafish foil, and didactic counterexample.
Finally, both European accounts of the American religious scene suggest the inadequacy of present-day analyses of anti-Americanism. The ending of the Cold War, the attacks of September 11, and the war in Iraq have certainly roiled transatlantic relations. But the divide between the Old World and the New is more fruitfully examined by looking at deeper cultural factors and the accretion of perceptions and interpretations over a much longer stretch of time. Contemporary European anti-Americanism must be understood against a backdrop of historical precedents—many of which has to do with religion.
Thomas Albert Howard is associate professor of history and director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He is the author, most recently, of Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University.
Plus ça Change
With variations on “Amazing Grace”
and second-liners yielding to the urge
to twirl their parasols and sway in pace,
New Orleans dances to a funeral dirge.It’s called a renaissance: the fabled place
of pleasure, which mad waters would submerge
and winds deform, is working on her face.
Through Mardi Gras and festivals and shows,
her lovers freshen up her tarnished name;
the Quarter streets and bars that brought her famepropose their nonchaloir; the money flows
from FEMA and insurance. Who’s to blame
if politics and graft are still the game?
—Catharine Savage Brosman