Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

While a graduate student in history in the 1990s, I once asked a German friend what she found most remarkable about the United States. She recalled the experience of an evangelical woman telling her about the daily “prayer journal” she kept. This would in itself be unusual for a German, my friend explained, but what further struck her was that the woman logged her entries on a home computer more advanced than any my friend had seen in Germany. The marriage of evangelical piety and cutting-edge technology seemed unmistakably American to her but somehow at odds—worrisomely at odds—with what modernity was supposed to look like.

That story came back to me a decade later at an academic conference when a Scandinavian scholar rose to complain about the pronounced religiosity of American life. Educated Europeans understand, she said, that Sigmund Freud was simply right: Religion is a childish illusion, and clinging to it a form of neurosis. America’s intermixing of religion and politics, she continued, could only be regarded as a historically neurotic phenomenon, a stubborn holdover from less enlightened times.

As many have noted, religion is a major reason for America and Europe growing apart. “To Europeans,” wrote the editors of The Economist , “religion is the strangest and most disturbing feature of American exceptionalism.” Such transatlantic disaffection invites historical perspective. Even as the absence of a feudal order and established church have shaped American institutions and political habits, the dialectic of a feudal order and established churches and of secularist rejection of religion has structured European attitudes toward the United States, particularly toward the American experiment in religious freedom and toward the seemingly unabating religious vitality that this system has produced.

Although the American and French Revolutions have often been seen as together forming “an age of democratic revolution,” in religious matters the transatlantic disparities overwhelm the similarities. The political theorist Hugh Heclo has used the arresting image of a double helix to capture what he sees as the specifically American “denouement” to the puzzle of reconciling Christian religion and civil authority.

While the Christian gospel was a key long-term force shaping democratic vision, organized Christianity and democracy had had an ambiguous relationship throughout their respective histories. In America, for the first time, Christianity and democratic self-government launched themselves together in a kind of double-stranded helix spiraling through time. Christianity and civil government were both now freed from the old [European] dialectic of yes/no, unity or chaos, and became two maybes, moving together, each affecting the other.

This metaphor seeks to capture the paradox of the fastidious separation of religion from the political order in the new American republic and religion’s enduring proximity to and influence on the political order. By contrast, European intellectuals have more often presumed a zero-sum game, a yes“no dialectic between organized religion and the forces of modernity. Historically speaking, America’s multifarious sectarian religiosity has bewildered “throne and altar” reactionaries and restorationists in favor of organized religion, while the strong survival of religion in America has confounded and disturbed secularists and progressives in favor of modernity.

In 1648, delegates of the European powers concluded “in the name of the most holy and individual Trinity” the Peace of Westphalia, securing “a Christian and Universal peace” among the feuding parties of the Thirty Years’ War. “Christendom” not only did not decline from this time, but with its famous doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio , its underlying logic received powerful, official sanction, and it has continued on in the fragmented territorial or “state churches” of the emergent European nation-states. Presiding over considerably secularized societies, remnants of these state churches, veritable “mini-Christendoms,” have endured until the present.

While some states took incremental and episodic steps toward religious toleration after 1648, others did not. The Sun King, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes (1598) in 1685, prompting Bishop Bossuet to boast that France, “the eldest daughter of the Church,” had reverted to being the most intolérant state in Europe, setting a model of religio-political propriety for others to follow.

At the threshold of political modernity, many European elites, statesmen, and intellectuals saw religion as a dialectic of stark contraries: a building revolutionary tradition wedded to an insistent anticlerical, and often antireligious, ethos, on the one hand, standing against a counterrevolutionary program intent on maintaining or restoring traditional forms of religious life and political authority, on the other. For the revolutionaries, a complete breakthrough to the modern was impossible without a secularism robust and unremitting enough to displace and reoccupy the social and intellectual space of a church, ancestrally embedded in the political order of the ancien régime. On this score, one might connect the dots from the anticlerical vitriol of Voltaire and Diderot to the catechisms and cults of the French Revolution to the musings of Saint-Simon and Comte to the utopian longings of Marx and the secularist civil ideology of Emil Durkheim.

America took a different course. To be sure, the Puritan and Anglican establishments in New England and Virginia replicated the European state-church model, but the situation on the ground was rapidly changing toward what Philip Schaff later called “a motley sampler of all church history.” The emigration-fueled growth of religious pluralism and internal religious splits found in practically all of the colonies”combined with the principled arguments leading toward religious liberty put forth by William Penn, Roger Williams, and later Thomas Jefferson and James Madison”led, in meandering and often inadvertent fashion, to the principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” of religion embodied in the First Amendment.

In contrast to Enlightenment and revolutionary Europe, strong vitriolic attacks on traditional religion of the écraser-l’infâme sort were virtually absent in the colonies. In fact, the colonies’ political and intellectual elites were more often preoccupied with the challenge of how “to encourage religion without setting up a European-style church establishment,” as Mark Noll has written.

Across the Atlantic, mounting a frontal assault on the church of the ancien régime, the French Revolution had to present itself as an alternative religion, a regeneration of humanity under secular auspices”an impulse powerfully continued in many of the intellectual projects of the following century, reaching its apogee in the fraternité of international socialism. The Revolution, Tocqueville observed, “took on the appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries. Or, rather, it itself became a new kind of religion.” We might even speak of a new secularist confessionalism that, as if taking its cue from Bossuet, sought rigidly to demarcate the limits of dissent in the name of a higher state-orchestrated anticlerical, and at times specifically anti-Christian, unity.

The initial revolutionary effort to achieve this higher unity by breaking the back of religious opposition represents one of the most momentous periods of cultural discontinuity in modern Western history. This déchristianisation included abolishing contemplative religious orders; confiscating monastic and other ecclesiastical properties; forcing the clergy to sign an oath of loyalty to the state in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790); killing thousands of non-oath-taking priests in the Vendée uprising of 1793; pillaging churches and monasteries throughout France and Europe to finance the revolutionary armies fighting abroad; the abrogation of the Gregorian calendar and attempt to introduce a new one based on Revolutionary-era sensibilities; the renaming of streets and locales from saints’ names to figures and ideals of the Revolution; the brief transformation of the venerable Notre Dame cathedral into a “Temple of Reason,” dedicated “to philosophy”; and, not least, the abduction and exile of no less than two popes, Pius VI (1798) and Pius VII (1809). Not surprisingly, many of Europe’s devout regarded the Revolution, and later its international embodiment in Napoleon Bonaparte, as a manifestation of the spirit of the Antichrist.

Even though the 1790s were a decade of remarkable cultural discontinuity, the underlying “political theology,” the transmuted “confessional” sensibilities, persisted. As if cribbing from the Catechism of the Council of Trent or the Heidelberg Catechism, devotees of the Revolution wrote and circulated “catechisms” that included such lines as:

Question: What is Baptism?
Answer: It is the regeneration of the French begun on 14 July 1789 and soon supported by the whole French nation.

Question: What is Communion?
Answer: It is the association proposed to all peoples by the French Republic henceforth to form on earth only one family of brothers who no longer recognize or worship any idol or tyrant.

Confessional passions were eerily echoed, too, in the partisan conflicts of this era. Speaking of the civil war in the Vendée region, Michael Burleigh has observed that “this was the first occasion in history when an ‘anticlerical’ and self-styled ‘non-religious’ state embarked on a program of mass murder . . . just as capable of unimaginable barbarity as any inspired by religion, eclipsing such limited atrocities as the Inquisition or the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.” A major goal of the Revolution, one revolutionary wrote in reference to Robespierre’s Rousseau-inspired Cult of the Supreme Being, was to create “the single universal religion on the debris of dethroned superstition.”

The stark zero-sum-game approach to religion has enduringly informed European perceptions and interpretations of America. From the antirevolutionary, traditionalist, or rightist side of the European dialectic, the American double helix appeared as an ill-conceived compromise with liberal, democratic, and anti-establishmentarian forces. Indeed, for Old World defenders of the cultural stability and social cohesion afforded by state churches after the Restoration of 1815, the American example of a purely “voluntary” approach to religious matters appeared woefully problematic and blameworthy. Figures such as Metternich, Chateaubriand, Joseph de Maistre, Samuel Wilberforce, Charles Dickens, Francis Trollope, Joseph Edmund Jörg, Matthew Arnold, and Hilaire Belloc, among others, reproached the United States for its wanting religious conditions and the political supports undergirding them and for a concomitant “spiritual” disarray, mediocrity, or uncouthness.

Lacking a religious establishment, many felt, religion became worrisomely decentralized and local, subject to the whims of everyman in a wide-open frontier environment. In this compromised situation, without an official countervailing power to superintend and check them, strange religious enthusiasms”Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, Baptists, Methodists, revivals, camp meetings, itinerant ministers, Unitarians, Mormons”would only multiply and flourish.

In this land of “humbug” and “nonsense,” as one Bavarian Catholic traditionalist put it, fragmentation would beget fragmentation, arbitrariness would feed on arbitrariness, creating cultural discord and social disharmony. No longer upheld by the state, religion would become the creature of the unseemly, the vulgar, the market, the mob. Dependent on their congregations for support, the clergy would forfeit respect and esteem. As deference to appropriate authority declined, the people would develop a shameful “indifferentism.”

In Europe today, this tradition of antimodern, organicist, throne-and-altar and/or ultramontane conservatism is vestigial at best (and should not be confused with more recent nationalist and anti-immigrant right-wing voices). Even so, the traditionalist condescension toward and contempt for New World religiosity prowls about today ghostlike in the general (more secularized) European body politic and historical consciousness, an embedded element of cultural memory, a buried but not dormant ingredient in transatlantic disaffections.

Sedimented on top of this traditionalist contempt, however, is the secularist or leftist vision of the American double helix, usually offered up in the ritualistic question “Why is America so religious?” This line of thinking descends from Condorcet, various Saint-Simonians, Comte, numerous 1848ers and anticlerical republicans, Marx, Engels, and Durkheim as well as from many latter-day shapers of the “secularization thesis” as the appropriate “grand narrative” about “the modern.” Cultured despisers of religion occupying this intellectual space have found in American credulity an inviting target for scorn.

For the left, the problem with America is not necessarily the profusion of erratic forms of religious life but the more fundamental fact that religion in general and Christianity in particular appear worrisomely insusceptible to the putatively secularizing forces of modernity and the “stagist” logic of history. What chutzpah had possessed religion in this upstart land to flout the learned prophets of its demise? America suffered from a congenital deficit of secularizing impulses. The revival-prone republic had generated no gripping “drama of atheist humanism,” to quote Henri de Lubac’s famous title. Consequently, traditional modes of belief, willy-nilly, have enjoyed a more visible and enduring role in America than in Europe.

The steady, often mutually reinforcing accumulation of traditionalist-rightist and secularist-leftist disapprobation of American religious life has contributed to what Samuel Johnson in another context described as an “hereditary imputation,” the propensity for “certain fixed and stated reproaches [from] one part of mankind . . . [to be] thrown upon another, which are regularly transmitted through continued successions.” These long-standing religio-political differences do not comprise some root cause of anti-Americanism, to be sure, but they have left a sizable deposit on the formative presuppositions”or what Charles Taylor has called the “social imaginary””of European elites and intellectuals in the modern era.

From this dialectical standpoint, the American experience seemed a curious half-measure, lackluster and lethargic in its ability to shake off traditional religion, even if that religion had been severely fractured in the “sectarian” environment of North America. It did not fit into normal expectations and customary narratives and was consequently reviled or misapprehended. But nonplussed disapprobation is not the whole story, for some European liberals”such as Tocqueville or Benjamin Constant in the nineteenth century or Raymond Aron and Jacques Maritain in the twentieth”have argued for arrangements that, whether commenting on the United States directly or not, resonate quite well with American ideals of religious liberty.

To the student of the American scene since World War II, the categories of double helix and dialectic might appear far too rigid. One of the signature developments of this period might be described as the imposition of a more “European” dialectical set of sensibilities on top of an older American double helix. A steady stream of Supreme Court decisions since the 1940s has severely circumscribed the public exercise of religious expression, affirming what some have called a “godless” constitution, and creating what others have labeled a “naked public square.” Concurrently, in the postwar period, and markedly since the 1960s, there has emerged, most notably in the media, the academy, and the left wing of the Democratic party, an intelligentsia committed to a much more aggressive secularism than has been the case in American history.

Not surprisingly, this more aggressive secularism has generated a strong backlash, in the form of a populist “religious right,” a religion-friendly “neo-conservatism,” and the creation of a new ecumenism among tradition-minded Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. American politics has become marked by a no-compromise, dialectical conflict between secularist and religious activists that does not reflect the moderate beliefs of most American citizens. In short, America has experienced its own “belated” guerre culturelle or Kulturkampf , with the major contrast with Europe being that the conservative side does not harken back nostalgically to “throne and altar” but wants to reaffirm religion in general and Christianity in particular (often in highly idealized forms) as a bedrock of American society and democratic order.

In Europe, since the crumbling legacy of Christendom has fully come undone in what the historian Hugh McLeod has called “the religious crisis of the 1960s,” a number of Europeans have begun to rethink the significance of secularization and its social consequences. The collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the actual embodiment of state-sanctioned atheism; the fresh, if ever turbulent, winds of change brought about by Vatican II and the papacy of John Paul II; the influx of numerous Muslims into Europe in the wake of decolonization; the rise of numerous missionary evangelical-style churches often led by nonwhite, “Global South” figures; along with the recognition that the young in Europe often know little or nothing about the religious heritages of their respective countries”all this has led many to wonder if the legacy of an all-embracing secular canopy remains a viable option for Europe’s present-day postcolonial immigration societies.

A once resolutely secularist thinker, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for example, has in recent years spoken of the emergence of the “post-secular” and the limits of a philosophical secularism, a legacy of a European “special path” (Sonderweg) that compels religious believers to articulate their intuitions about morality and the good life in an idiom foreign and often adverse to their deepest convictions. “The democratic state,” he writes, “must not pre-emptively reduce the polyphonic complexity of the diverse public voices, because it cannot know whether it is not otherwise cutting society off from scarce resources for the generation of meanings and shaping identities. Particularly with regard to social relations, religious traditions possess the power to convincingly articulate moral sensitivities and solidaristic intuitions.”

In France, the purest embodiment of a secular canopy in a political sense, challengers to the status quo of laïcité and the 1905 law of church“state separation have recently argued for greater public visibility of religious belief and less hostility on the part of the state toward religious actors in society. The Federation of French Protestants, the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, and the prestigious League of Education (historically a bastion of French secularism), for example, have all called for a move away from the traditional model of a combative secularism (laïcité de combat) to one of pluralism and greater openness (laïcité plurielle), sometimes appealing directly to the American model.

These pleas have received powerful endorsement from several leading French intellectuals. The historian Jean Baubérot has argued that the situation no longer needs to be conceived in the framework of the confrontation between anticlerical secularists and antisecular Catholics that has colored so much of French (and Southern Catholic European) experience in the modern era. The realities of multiculturalism and globalization should lead to a loosening of militant secularism and a more fluid, open-ended process of negotiation and dialogue with religious currents in society. Without these steps, he fears, religious forces will measure their worth by their intransigence and antimodern withdrawal, not by their ability to engage and peaceably interact with civil society.

Similarly, Jean-Paul Williame, a sociologist of French secularism, has argued that France today stands in need of a “more secular secularism” (laïcité plus laïque) that would be less dogmatic, less “confessional,” and more open than France’s traditional secularism to “a certain return of religion to the public sphere.” “The secularization of secularism is also a critique of the mystifications of science and politics, a demythologization of all the secular forms of absolutization.”

In the final analysis, the transatlantic divide might not run through the Atlantic but through the societies on either side. We might do better simply to speak of two secularisms”a dialectical version with some sympathizers in America and a double-helix version with some sympathizers in Europe. The former bears the lingering confessional imprint of the ancien régime that it reacted against and has historically presented itself as a liberating, crusading ideal, a new ecclesia militans , or what Raymond Aron called a “secular clericalism.” The latter reflects the messy, even cacophonous pluralism of the early American republic and has historically developed, sometimes haltingly, to permit, not rival or silence, a wide range of religious actors and voices.

In Europe, neither those with a lingering, nostalgic connection to the ancien régime nor their unsuspecting kin, enthusiasts for a new secularist ecclesia militans , have been smitten by the American model. Reproached by cultured despisers of the post-revolutionary right and the left, that model has often found itself in a crossfire of disapprobation. Yet today, as the forces of democracy and modernity enjoy an ever expanding reach, in a world where St. Augustine’s “restless heart” of religious desire appears as inextinguishable and complex as ever, one would do well at least to consider the double helix’s historical arc, even if one recognizes, too, the propensity of all human achievements to defect and perish.

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of history and directs the Jerusalem and Athens Forum at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. This essay is adapted from his book God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide, published this month by Oxford University Press.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift