Religion in America

A Political History

Denis Lacorne. Translated by George Holoch. Foreword by Tony Judt

Columbia University Press

Religion in America

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Religion in America

A Political History

Denis Lacorne. Translated by George Holoch. Foreword by Tony Judt

Columbia University Press

Denis Lacorne identifies two competing narratives defining the American identity. The first narrative, derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, is essentially secular. Associated with the Founding Fathers and reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, this line of reasoning is predicated on separating religion from politics to preserve political freedom from an overpowering church. Prominent thinkers such as Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Jean-Nicolas Démeunier, who viewed the American project as a radical attempt to create a new regime free from religion and the weight of ancient history, embraced this American effort to establish a genuine "wall of separation" between church and state.

The second narrative is based on the premise that religion is a fundamental part of the American identity and emphasizes the importance of the original settlement of America by New England Puritans. This alternative vision was elaborated by Whig politicians and Romantic historians in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is still shared by modern political scientists such as Samuel Huntington. These thinkers insist America possesses a core, stable "Creed" mixing Protestant and republican values. Lacorne outlines the role of religion in the making of these narratives and examines, against this backdrop, how key historians, philosophers, novelists, and intellectuals situate religion in American politics.

Denis Lacorne is the best European observer of American politics and culture I know. Extraordinarily knowledgeable and sympathetic, he sees through simple-minded myths about America and is attentive to connections we miss. Religion in America, which concerns the non-contradiction between Enlightenment and Protestantism in the American imagination, confirms what I've long suspected: that Lacorne understands us better than we understand ourselves.

Mark Lilla, Columbia University, author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West

Drawing upon Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835) and attempting to avoid simplistic clichés of American religion, French political scientist Denis Lacorne brilliantly argues that religion has played an ongoing role in the American republic because it has blended Enlightenment skepticism, American pragmatism, and religious innovation and entrepreneurialism over the past two centuries. He cogently engages widespread misconceptions among French intellectuals and Europeans about the role of religion in American public life and points to the ironic and contradictory impulses within American and French political life. His book reads like a modern Tocqueville, and it is highly recommended!

Gastón Espinosa, Claremont McKenna College, author of Religion and the American Presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush with Commentary and Primary Sources

Lacorne is an acute yet friendly observer of US politics and culture. The parts of the book that form a straightforward essay on religion in America are wise, sympathetic, and vividly written. But his weaving of this account into the story of France's long obsession with America is fascinating in its own right, and casts light on the larger theme. Sorting through the insights and misconceptions of his predecessors is unexpectedly revealing: quite often funny, too.

Financial Times

Anyone interested in religion and politics in the U.S. stands to be deeply informed by Lacorne's lucid, intelligent book.


Forceful and intelligent.

Kirkus Reviews

it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Jim Cullen, Cutting Edge

It's an edifying read for someone seeking grounding in the subject as well as a user-friendly course adoption.

Jim Cullen, History News Network

This book provides a much welcomed viewpoint from outside our ongoing religious squabbles in American politics. Lacorne admirably avoids oversimplification while remaining eminently readable.

Library Journal

A fascinating and noteworthy study of American religion.

Eldon J. Eisenach, Journal of American History

On a shelf groaning with books on politics and religion, Denis Lacorne's study will stand out for its distinct perspective and erudition.

Thomas E. Buckley, American Historical Review

The book is quite thorough, considering the substantial historical period being covered. Examples—from legal cases to travel narratives, public school curricula changes to political pulpits—are expertly chosen, and the resulting exploration is as concerned with the specifics of the topics as it is a general commentary on broad overarching concepts.

Saliha Chattoo, Studies in Religion

Suitable for college-level political history and religion holdings alike…a fine scholarly assessment and history, this is a recommendation for any college-level collection!

Midwest Book Review
Foreword, by Tony Judt
1. America, the Land of Religious Utopias
2. The Rehabilitation of the Puritans
3. Evangelical Awakenings
4. The Bible Wars
5. Religion
6. A Godless America
7. The Rise of the Religious Right
8. The Wall of Separation Between Church and State
Epilogue: Obama's Faith-Friendly Secularism
Appendix: The Religious Composition of the United States

About the Author

Denis Lacorne is a senior research fellow with the CERI (Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po, Paris. A frequent commentator on American politics in the French press and on French television, his books include With Us or Against Us: Studies in Global Anti-Americanism and Language, Nation, and State: Identity Politics in a Multilingual Age, both with Tony Judt.

Tony Judt (1948–2010) was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University and director of its Erich Maria Remarque Institute. His last book was The Memory Chalet.