In addition to an excerpt from the introduction to Denis Lacorne’s Religion in America, as well as Joseph Blankholm’s response to Lacorne’s recent presentation of the book at Columbia University, you can also read the book’s foreword by the late Tony Judt, available from Columbia University Press:
France, like the United States, was refounded in the late eighteenth century on an Enlightenment and republican basis. In contrast to the United States, the French revolutionary settlement proved unstable and contentious for much of the ensuing two centuries: both the republic and its institutions were challenged by voices seeking a return to the past. On the face of it, America proved a more successful and complete revolution, displacing an imperial monarchy with a republican constitution and a society united behind it—despite the disgraceful paradox of slavery.
But seen through another glass, it was America that proved unstable. From the French perspective, the contrast between organized religion and a republican political culture was clear and unambiguous from the outset. In 1791, even before the monarchy was overthrown, the French revolutionaries began a despoiling of the established (Catholic) church and its material wealth—a process that culminated just over a century later in the complete disestablishment of the French Church and the unambiguous construction of an unbreachable wall of laïcité (“laicness” or “ultra-secularism”) between church and state.
This established a clear space in which republicanism could define itself not just against the monarchy and the church but against all forms of religious practice and expression. At least until the recent advent of a new minority of practicing Muslims, the French could contentedly suppose that to be republican—i.e., to be French—was to keep faith and religious practice far away from the public place: no crosses, no bibles, no veils. It was thus a source of ongoing wonder and some distaste to look across the Atlantic and see France’s fellow enlightened republic (the only other significant institutional survivor from the age of reason) wallowing in apparent public religiosity.
For the paradox of the United States, of course, was that it was founded under the auspices of “a Creator” and was from the outset a world of committed believers—whether Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Jew—but had given itself a constitution in which the very first amendment specified unambiguously that there should be no established religion of any sort. Thus, whereas it took the French more than a century to rid themselves of an established church, the Americans successfully and definitively did so right away. And yet they continue to be quite distinctively religious—more so than any other Western or developed society. How can this be?
Continue reading here.