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A Political History

by Denis Lacorne

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-231-15100-9
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

French political scientist Lacorne offers rigorous insight from a continental European perspective on the often fraught and intimate relationship between religion and politics in the United States.

The author works from the premise that while “the American Revolution and its constitutional climax” created a new political framework, it did nothing to define a national identity. This left the field wide open for different identity narratives to emerge. The two that interest Lacorne stand in radical opposition to each other. The first, which he associates with Enlightenment philosophy and the Founding Fathers, speaks to the necessity of separating church and state so as to liberate the fledgling American nation from the burdens of history and religion. The second, which was first articulated by 19th-century Whig politicians and Romantic historians, sees American identity as “Neopuritan,” the unchanging product of “a unique combination of Protestant and republican values.” Lacorne looks at the evolution of these rival narratives by examining the writings of prominent French and American intellectuals past and present, such as Tocqueville, Lévy, Jefferson and Huntington. What emerges is a story of an American identity that is essentially Protestant and Christian but also riven to the core by contradictory and competing ideals. Over the course of more than 200 years, America has transformed God into a utilitarian entity that inheres uneasily in everything from its social fabric to capitalism to the global spread of American democracy. In so doing, the fabled “land of the free” clearly reveals itself as a complex product of world history rather than a lone, divinely sanctioned “city on a hill.”

Forceful and intelligent.