Jim Cullen, Review of Denis Lacorne's "Religion in America: A Political History" (Columbia, 2011)



Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. His work in progress is currently titled "The Arc of American History: What Hollywood Actors Tell Us about Ourselves." Cullen blogs at American History Now.]

This little book manages to do a lot in the space of 170 pages. First published in France in 2007, with an evocative introduction by the late Tony Judt, it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Lacorne's point of departure in conceptualizing religious history rests on the work of John Murrin, who observed that in the United States "the constitutional roof" was built before the "national walls." As Lacorne is well aware, this assertion is contestable, particularly by those -- from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington, among others -- who have argued that American religious culture, like many other kinds, was well in place by the time of the American Revolution. But an important dimension of this even-handed study is an attempt to balance what he plausibly sees as too much emphasis on the Puritan roots and influence in American society. For Lacorne, a separate strand of U.S. evangelicalism has also been part of the picture. So has, at least as importantly, a largely secular one centered in the thought and legacy of the Founding Fathers. This latter one, whose institutional locus has been the Supreme Court, has been decisive, in his (generally approving) view.

There are are least three ways to use Religion in America, all of them arresting. The first is as a brief survey, one which begins with the Quakers and runs through an epilogue of the Obama years. The second is as a historiographic account of the shifting reputations of evangelicals, Catholics, and other religious movements in the United States, both among their contemporaries and subsequent historians. A related, but discrete, third lens looks more specifically at the French perspective (Lacorne is a senior research fellow at the Centre d'Etudes ed the Recherches Internationales in Paris). France is an especially valuable standpoint for such a study, given its constrast with Anglo-American tradition, its own republican tradition, and the long love-hate relationship between the two countries. Naturally, de Toqueville looms large here, but Lacorne is nuanced in giving him his due even as he points out his limitations.

Lacorne's skill in juggling these three interpretive balls makes the book notably versatile volume for teaching purposes. It's an edifying read for someone seeking grounding in the subject as well as a user-friendly course adoption. The individual chapters are also well-segmented, allowing them to be slotted into general survey in addition to religion courses. Rarely does one encounter such effective one-stop shopping on such a large important subject. One hopes and expects it to become a perennial.

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