Interview with Tal Howard
Thinking in Public
October 17, 2011
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: Many things look different depending on which side of the Atlantic one is looking from. And that is especially true when it comes to religion in America and in ways many might find unexpected. Our guest today is Thomas Albert Howard, the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College where he also directs the Jerusalem & Athens Forum and the Center for Christian Studies. He holds a Ph.D. in European intellectual history from the University of Virginia. He has also studied and/or taught at universities including Valparaiso University, the University of Freiburg in Germany, the Humboldt University of Berlin, the University of Basel, and the University of Notre Dame. Professor Howard, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Howard: Well, it’s good to be here.
Mohler: Thinking about the field of European intellectual history for most Americans is probably fairly easy, at least in terms of conceiving what the discipline is all about. But your particular specialization is looking at trans-Atlantic studies. Talk to us about that.
Howard: Modern history really begins with the French Revolution in Europe and of course a major revolution happens here after 1776. And I’ve just been interested in some of the interplay and ideas of intellectuals. Ideas that have had a purchase on the imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, with modern history you have more transportation and much more cross-pollination of ideas. I thought that would just be something of a fertile and interesting area to explore.
Mohler: A good number of European historians in particular have given a lot of attention to the discourse and cultural exchange that took place in the Mediterranean Basin. And yet you are arguing that the Atlantic is also a fertile place to look. And from that matter of comparison there has been a lot of concourse communication and cultural exchange between the two land masses on either side of the Atlantic.
Howard: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I’m only accelerating into the twentieth century. Of course, all the way up to you could trace our hyper-connected world today, but I think the nineteenth century is especially interesting for religious and theological matters as they argue in my book because despite all the exchanges you still have some fundamental differences with respect to the historical terrain and the types of currents and thoughts that are shaping religious and theological ideas.
Mohler: Professor Howard is the author of books including, Religion and the Rise of Historicism published by Cambridge University Press, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University published by Oxford University Press and his new book is entitled God and the Atlantic: America, Europe and the Religious Divide also published by Oxford University Press. Professor Howard in this book lays bare something that many Americans, including many scholars of American history and theology might not really have given much attention to in times past. And that is, how Europeans, selected Europeans in particular looked at religion, Christianity in particular, in North America and especially in the United States. Professor Howard, I just have to ask you, how did you come across this research topic which led to this most recent book?
Howard: Well, in a previous book I had explored a theologian named Philip Schaff. He was a Swiss-German; he was born in Switzerland and educated in Germany and he came to the United States in the 1840’s. And that earlier book was on the German University and he actually wrote a book to explain to English speaking audiences what was going on in the very formidable German university system of the nineteenth century. But then I happened on some works and lectures he had given on American civilization once he had travelled back to the so-called “Old World”. And I became fascinated by this, what you might call the genre of Europeans explaining America. Probably the best known example Alexis de Tocqueville and his famous travels in the 1830’s and his writings on democracy in America. But I discovered a larger literature and quite a lot of the focus is on religious issues, but it was the figure Philip Schaff that was sort of the entry point into the larger literature.
Mohler: Perhaps we should set as an intellectual foundation for this discussion that at least the received wisdom before the French Revolution in terms of continental thought and for that matter, also including Britain, was that there had to be a unity between the governing authorities and the church, otherwise the society itself was, if not fatally, then at least significantly compromised and weakened. And thus when you look at the very beginnings of the United States as an experience, as a nation, of course, in its early period. Even those early European observers could see that the United States was headed in a very different trajectory.
Howard: That’s true. I mean, going back to the Peace of Westphalia in Europe and if you wanted to you could trace it all the way back to Constantine, there was the assumption that the political order had a deep connection to the religious order. That was the role of the civil authority to keep that confessional identity. European historians often speak of the late sixteenth to the eighteenth century as one of confessionalization where Europe was balkanized by different Lutheran and Catholic and Calvinist areas. That of course began in North America with the establishment, puritan establishments in New England and Anglican establishments in Virginia and the Carolinas. But beginning with Roger Williams and all the different groups that began to settle what would become the United States. The whole notion of confessionalization came under fire and then legally would be a First Amendment. It became no longer tenable (6:16). For the European imagination that was accustomed to the normal order of things, to see the proliferation of different groups and the legal environment that made that possible, and I should also say the geographical expanse, the moving western frontier, many were able to divine this meant varying new things for Christianity and religion in general.
Mohler: I was reading a European historian just recently writing about the French Revolution. And he made a very interesting point that is kind of a continuation of your argument about the confessionalization of Europe. He points out that even the French Revolution in terms of its ardent secularism was really not the rejection of a state church, it was rather a very forceful imposition of secularism or rationalism as the state religion of Revolutionary France. I thought, well that’s a pretty good corrective. It’s easy to look at France and the French Revolution and see it as the setting loose of all kinds of things when actually, insofar as the revolutionaries were concerned, it was really not the setting loose of many things but of that one thing, and that was official secularism.
Howard: That’s true, and I think that’s one of the most profound differences between the United States and Europe is just the nature of religion and their respective revolutions. I mean, there was a more moderate phase of the French Revolution, the early phase that produced the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen which does kind of have a religious liberty or freedom of conscience clause. But by the middle part of the 1790’s the so-called Radical Revolution we have terror and the guillotining and what historians call de-Christianization. There was, for a period, to really de-Christianize France in the name of the Republic and liberty and secularism. And I think that is a very fair way of thinking about that. And that really has a long legacy in the nineteen century of a much more assertive secularism, anti-clericalism. I think you see that in the 1905 laws in France separating church and state. A Turkish writer that I like uses the term “passive secularism” for the US model. The First Amendment trying to kind of create just a modus vivendi of various different religious groups and more assertive secular branch that does influence many other quarters of Europe. I actually even in the conclusion of my book use the phrase “secular confessionalism.” I do think there is something to that.
Mohler: In your book, you quote a French observer of the United States when that period of the very earliest portion of the French Revolution, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand who said that the States of America are a country where there are thirty-two religions but there is only one course at dinner, and it’s bad. It was a wonderful anecdote or epigram for you to put within your book. But it really does make the point that it seems that a good many of these continental observers looking at America with a sense of concern, maybe even disgust and amazement at the pluralism of the America experiment from the beginning.
Howard: That’s true, and Talleyrand, he’s an interesting figure because he’s sort of all over the ideological map in the 1790’s and after. But I think there, he’s expressing a, not a secular worry about the United States, but kind of an older conservative worry. I mean, he would have been coming in an environment where there was reputably one faith in France, the Catholic church, and to have spent a brief period in the United States, that would have taken him aback; it would have been a very jarring thing for him to see that, the different groups, the different confessions in the United States, the early makings of a denomination.
Mohler: And Achille Murat you also quote in your book who said, another observer, this by the way in 1832, “that looking at the physiognomy of the United States, its religion is the only figure that disgusts a foreigner.” So what would be the nature of that kind of disgust?
Howard: Well, I think it is sort of just the worry that society is becoming unhinged if religion is the glue of society. And there’s something to this conservative critique I want to lift out and separate it from of the unsavory political connotations, you know throne and alter and sort of an arch-conservatism. But there is a worry by conservatives that without a religious foundation, without a legal basis of that you were going to have just endless feuding sects and rivalries, jealous proselytizing. From the European standpoint the imagination that poses real problem.
Mohler: That does point out, doesn’t it, in one way that the truly revolutionary character of the American experiment? You talk about the assumed union of the throne and alter that was very central to most European identities and to the understanding of statecraft. And then you come to the United States and from the very beginning, and we could point out that by the time you actually have the Revolution and you have the Constitutional Era and then the Early Republic Era, that’s not just something that American’s invented. It was already a settled fact by the time the United States came into its existence.
Howard: That’s true. I mean I think you already had that pluralism and the First Amendment in some ways recognizing what was already there and the unattainability of a national state church. So that reality was there and it was recognized in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I mean, I think what is very different between Europe and the United States is that the United States really did not have an old regime, this long history of confessional churches, throne and alter and church and crown. And so when modernity comes it doesn’t really come and start dialectical opposition to something that hadn’t come before, but it had, how do you put this, more breathing room, sort of a natural, less hostile environment in which to exist. And so it wasn’t that harsh anti-clericalism in the religious realm that you see in Europe in the 1790’s and really through out the nineteenth century, you know directed against the Catholic church and southern European countries, but you see it in northern European countries and in England as well.
Mohler: Now, before turning to ask a couple of specific questions about your book and its contents, let me ask you, what do you think that, at least until now, but I don’t think is at all an exaggeration, until your book, from what I can tell of the literature, no one actually asked this question before and looked at it quite the same way. Once you have written this book, I have to say, the question was rather obvious. Why do you think it was less so to many historians before?
Howard: That’s a good question. I think many historians have been shaped by European models of social science and history and historical writing where, I think sometimes this sort of European path to modernity is taken to be kind of the normal course. And religious America is the odd man out, the problem of the historical lager and so I’m sort of turning a question on its end and asking a question about European secularity and some of the difference between the two. So, you are right, I think there may be an intimation of what I have done in some other writings and I borrow quite a bit from the sociologist, Peter Berger who asks more contemporary questions about this matter. But I think that is a perceptive question.
Mohler: I do think that a book like this can catch up by something of a surprise. We read it and are informed by it. Our thinking is reshaped by it, and our intellectual curiosities are fired by it. And one of the questions that comes to mind is, why didn’t someone ask this question before? That’s what makes history so important as a disciple. It’s not just the same questions are being asked over and over again, it’s that top flight historical minds are attracted to new questions, and of course to new periods of history and to asking very new questions about even some of the periods we think we actually know a great deal about. There is always more to learn. A book like this makes that point emphatically clear.
In his new book, God and the Atlantic: America, Europe and the Religious Divide, Professor Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College gives us a vantage point that otherwise we would not have. I have to tell you that one of the joys of doing a program like this is that I get to talk to people that I find very interesting and about books in particular that I find fascinating. And this book, like so many others is one of those books that kind of jumps out and tells us something that we otherwise wouldn’t know. And in particular, I found fascinating in this book the way that Professor Howard looks at two different vantage points. Before looking at the two individuals that he chose to give closest attention to I want to look at the two vantage points that he found, two different patterns of response. As educated, enlightened Europeans looked at the United States and its religiosity, the one was a conservative response amongst persons who simply looked at the United States and with a great deal of anxiety saw the fracturing of a unity, saw the pluralizing of America’s religious and cultural space in a way that they felt would endanger, on the one hand, the future of the church and also the future of any republic. And then on the other hand you have this leftist response. The first was a conservative response, the second is far more radical made up of persons who looked at the United States from the vantage point of what they saw as a necessary, if not inevitable, then certainly much to be desired secularization. And when they looked at the United States they saw, well, anything but the kind of secularization that they both observed and hoped for in the their native Europe. Professor Howard, talk about those two different responses and how you came as a historian to detect those patterns of response.
Howard: You know, I think part of the job of a good historical work is to not only narrate but to analyze and provide patterns and maybe at some level the patterns that I detect break down, but I think that there is at least something to these two categories, what I call the traditional critique of the United States coming from those committed to state church, this type of throne and alter conservativism that I mentioned, certainly coming from conservative voices from the Catholic church, ultramontane voices and the whole school of romanticism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These type of conservativism as well saw religion as a good thing, you know would often look back to the Middle Ages as a desirable time. For them the United States was sort of an artificial creation, it was unorganic, it was constructed, thought up and was an area where individualism and pluralism had a long leash. And it was a real source of concern for them. Looking at different areas of Europe and these different strands of thought I was struck by the continuity of the type of critique that they would make about the religious realm and that’s what led me to use this rubric of traditionalist critique.
Mohler: By the way, the traditionalist critique, the content of your book is absolutely amazing. I was fascinated by reading, for instance, of the Italian Jesuit Giovanni Antonio Grassi who became the first president of Georgetown College which became Georgetown University there in Washington, D.C. In 1818 he wrote, “nothing is more striking to the Italian upon his arrival in America than the condition of religion. Due to an article in the federal constitution every religion and every sect is fully tolerated.” He then speaks about the danger of indifference and then continuing at the end he says, “every sect there is held as good, every road as correct and every error as the insignificant weakness of poor mortals. In accordance with such principles it is not surprising if America gives birth to innumerable sects which will daily subdivide and multiple.” Now that coming from a Roman Catholic could just as easily come from a confessional protestant. From a continental perspective, they look at the United States and, well, what they saw was the future that they found rather alarming.
Howard: Right, yeah. And in some case probably prophetic. They saw a lot of the different divisions of the extreme pluralism you do find in the United States. I mean, he would have been coming from the papal states which was essentially a theocracy in the middle of Italy up until the Italian unification in the 1860’s and 70’s. The contrast between the papal states and the U.S. First Amendment environment would have been extreme to say the least.
Mohler: Well, I’m thinking back to the way many Americans would have conceived religious liberty as a national priority and commitment back in the early era. Many Americans think of it now, many Americans think of it now just as the right to set up your own storefront and to have freedom of conscience. But Europeans might well remember and especially in the European shaped Americans that led the early period of America’s constitutional history. They understood that at least in many parts of Europe if you had a religious disagreement in the public square it ended up in war. And so the First Amendment to the Constitution is not only a recognition of the pluralism that already happened, it was a social compact that we don’t have to fight wars over these things, we can actually tolerate this diversity within the republic itself.
Howard: That’s true, that’s another good point. There’s been hostility and certainly some violence in the United States, but really nothing like the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War where the politics and religion were deeply and problematically involved in that. In one way I think you could say that the United States had learned from the European experience in that regard and that was one driving factor toward the First Amendment. I think in the time of the Enlightenment many of the secular thinkers of the Enlightenment that would associate religion almost completely with this type of kind of social anarchy and breakdown and war and that can be a problem when it is exclusively associated with that. But I think that’s another important difference that you brought up, the memory of religious warfare being a point of difference, but I think also a point where the United States, I hope had learned from the European experience.
Mohler: I was recently speaking to the German government’s Minister for Religious Affairs and I was rather surprised and yet also kind of intellectually stimulated by the fact that in discussing the current shape of the German Republic in terms of its reunification after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he had to bring up the Thirty Years War in order to understand where they are today. And you know, Americans we tend to think that World War II was ancient history, much less realize that in Europe even today many of these conflicts are matters of fairly recent memory.
Howard: I mean, for those with historical sensitivity in Europe, the period of confessionalization, I mean really, Europe is a much more secular place overall today, but the religious lines that were drawn in 1648 more or less remain the same up until the present. For the shaping of Central Europe, the Thirty Years War is very sad, but it is a sort of important period for understanding.
Mohler: Now in your work where you talk about the secularist critique, if you will, from the left in the critique of American religion seen from a European vantage point that was simply too religious, simply too theistic, too confessional. And the concern of many of these Europeans going back especially to the middle point of the nineteenth century is that America was not and is not secular enough. To quote Karl Marx from his essay “The Jewish Question” in 1843, “North America is preeminently the country of religiosity. But since the existence of religion is the existence of a defect,” as he said, “the source of this defect must be sought in the nature of the mistake itself.” How characteristic or how indicative was Marx’s view seen from the European left?
Howard: Yeah, it’s, you know we are mainly talking about intellectuals here. I think that this line of criticism develops more slowly throughout the nineteenth century and becomes dominate in the twentieth century, coming all the way up to the present. And it certainly finds its roots in the Enlightenment; thinkers associated with the French Revolution and August Kant, Karl Marx and others who, for all their differences saw a kind of logic to modernity going from the theological and religious to the increasingly secular. This sort of appropriateness to this path of historical development. And when he looked at the United States, they sort of tried to impose this narrative on America, but those who traveled to the United States, a good example I cite in the book of this effect is a lot of 1848ers. Europe experienced a failed revolution in 1848 that had a strongly secular component and they left after it did not succeed. And they thought that they were going to find the kind of republican, secular liberties that they wanted in the United States, but what they found was quite a lot of religiosity and they began to scratch their heads. This is not the way modernity is supposed to work out. This is a republic, why is it not secular? What is going on here? And there is sort of a bemusement, puzzlement that often condescension that you see. You see this all the way up to the present. It has a pretty long history.
Mohler: Now, I want to ask you to answer a question which perhaps as a historian you’re going to want to answer very carefully in terms of your historical analysis, and that’s good. How do you think they answered the question? In other words, when they asked the question, why is the United States so different? To what conclusion did they generally come?
Howard: That’s a very good question. Probably different conclusions. I think many would point to the French Revolution as we discussed earlier. They thought the American Revolution was quite deliberate, the knock-out blow, or the attempted knock-out blow to religion that the French Revolution had attempted. It just did not have enough secularism in its DNA, and they thought that the European Revolutionary tradition had that sort of congenital defect of the American Revolutionary tradition. I think many would also point to the frontier. Religious groups could just exist. They could disagree with one another. They could just hive off and form another community. Of those who observed many of the revivals we associate with the second Great Awakening, they would see that the American freedoms and frontier had enabled that in a way that was very, very foreign to European visitors.
Mohler: Now to what extent would their answer perhaps at least answer some then more political? That the absence of the king, the absence of the throne inevitably meant this kind of, what they would call, religious chaos?
Howard: Yeah, I think that’s there as well. Most on the secular side would be strongly against monarchy as well, so they weren’t looking to that as an ideal. I think on the secular side even though they would be against the monarchy, they were still looking off into a kind of strong state to implement secularism. In the United States they found a fairly weak state that couldn’t do that, didn’t even try to do that.
Mohler: I think in one paragraph of your book in your concluding chapter, you really deal with this so directly. I want to read your own words back to you. Speaking about the prospective of those who were looking from the secularizing left you write this, “From this standpoint America suffered from a congenital lack of secularizing impulses. There existed insufficient dialectical opposition, no attempted death blow to traditional, organized religion as had occurred in practice in the French Revolution and in theory many of its successor ideologies and intellectual systems in the nineteenth century.” You refer to America as the revival-prone younger republic that had not experienced the drama of atheist humanism, there quoting Henri de Lubac. And then you continued by saying, “culture despisers of religion occupying this political space have found in American credulity an inviting target for supercilious scorn.” And you know, I think that’s brilliantly put, by the way, and that is true not just of historians, but of Europeans writing right now.
Howard: That’s true, I mean you want to be careful, not necessarily all Europeans, there is a lot of philo-Americanism as well. I think that is a sort of dominant attitude one will encounter. I remember going to a talk at the University of Göttingen in Germany and actually I grew in the South in the Bible-belt. I remember them sort of discussing the Bible-belt, and they thought they were discussing some type of savage civilization and there I was sitting in the audience. But you do find that kind of haughty, that kind of condescension. Be careful about generalizations, but that is certainly out there.
Mohler: Yeah, another sentence in your book that I thought just quintessentially could distill this, you write, “America’s multifarious sectarian religiosity has bewildered reactionaries and restorationists in favor of one side of the European, while on the other side the strong survival of religion has confounded and disturbed secularist and progresses in favor of the other.” So, there you have it. You have on the one side those who are confounded and disturbed as secularists and you have bewildered reactionaries and restorationists. Very poetically put.
Howard: Thank you.
Mohler: But that really is not just something that is true of the era that you are looking at here. I would argue that it is true, that if you are looking at contemporary observers of the United States. Now perhaps you have to look at it and say that there are fewer reactionaries and restorationists, but certainly in terms of some of the very contemporary British historians you find this kind of lingering influence of that kind of judgment.
Howard: That’s true. This is sort of a hard argument to make, but I do try to make it at several points in the book that it’s not just sort of a secular European critique of the United States, but it’s a secular critique by kind of like a ghost of this reactionary view. Still there in some way though it’s kind of aristocratic assumed secularism that kind of comes together to produce this type of condescension that I referred to.
Mohler: How did you come up with the two men whose work you examined most closely?
Howard: You are referring to Philip Schaff and Jacque Maritain. Well again, I mentioned Schaff earlier as a key entry point into the broader literature and I discovered Maritain, actually I spent a year at a research fellowship in Notre Dame and I had studied some with the great Maritain scholar Ralph McInerny. And I came even though Maritain is Catholic and Schaff is protestant, Schaff is of the nineteenth century and Maritain is of the twentieth century. They both seemed to kind of overcome some common stereotypes of the United States. They both spent a lot of time in the United States and they both wrote quite a bit on religion politics and the United States, or at least in some of their writing. So I thought it might be helpful to compare them. Also to say that the traditionalist critique and the secularist critique do not exhaust European attitudes of American religious line.
Mohler: And both of those figures are formidable intellectuals, and I appreciated the dimensions of their work that I learned by reading your book. I want to ask you. When you look at these Europeans, whether they are on the left or the right on the kind of divide that you put together, to what extent did they, looking at the United States see what they saw was the future?
Howard: Well, I mean many of them are detecting the kind of pluralism and individualism I think they did see something of the future.
Mohler: I think that comes up in your book as a fear on the part of some, the hope on the part of others.
Howard: Yeah, that is true. And a hope for secularism too. I think in that regard some of the European prognostications that had been true in Europe, they had not been true in the United States and in the rest of the world. Sociologists like Peter Berger and others have argued. But I think many of them precedencing a type of fathomless pluralism, that individualism that would be today as something they did attack and that is important to recognize.
Mohler: In my conversation with Peter Berger in an early addition of this program Professor Berger pointed out what modernity brought to the United States as a social experience was not so much secularization, but what he called, pluralization. And then I read your book, and I realize that you are using in many ways the same categories to say, well that really wasn’t so much a new thing to the United States. If anything, it just shows how much the United States, in terms of its origins, was already a part of that modernity that was coming into being.
Howard: Certainly that is true. I think in early periods it was much more of a Christian pluralism. Today we have, there is certainly Christian pluralism, but secular voices and because of immigration different religious voices in the United States. I think early on you saw that kind of ideological religious heterogeny and pluralism was apparent quite early.
Mohler: And you talk about this, I found this absolutely fascinating even in very contemporary light, in light of contemporary developments. It has to do with how these Europeans were fascinated with Mormonism.
Howard: That’s true. Many were quite fascinated with Mormonism as a new religion. Many compared it to the emergence of Islam. But for those who busy themselves either travelling or studying it, it was a source of fascination. For many Catholics they saw this as kind of the reductio ad absurdum of Protestantism. I quote one book it’s called A History of Protestantism. It is written by a very traditionalist Catholic author in the 1850’s, and the book begins with Luther and Wittenberg. And it ends in Salt Lake City, but the title is just A History of Protestantism. The point was just to say this new religious environment in the United States gave birth to Mormonism and therefore it was an attempt to disprove Protestantism by way of history.
Mohler: Well, I’m thinking of John Courtney Murray, the Roman Catholic who in many ways kind of reshaped the thinking of the Roman Catholic church vis-à-vis, democracy, modernity, religious liberty back in the mid-point of the last century. He pointed out that the problem is, and I think he was trying to reassure Roman Catholics here, he said the problem is, is that when most people see religious liberty that they are unable to draw the distinction between saying everyone is right and everyone is free to be wrong. That probably continues very much in the present.
Howard: Yeah, that’s a good point. He is a very important voice on the Catholic side. Along with Jacque Maritain, they both are very influential in the Second Vatican 2’s decree on religious liberty.
Mohler: Now thinking of this as an evangelical, teaching in an evangelical institution. If you were just for a moment to speak to American evangelicals, what would you say it seems to you would be a concern or some concerns that evangelicals ought to have in terms of our own self understanding that would come to us from the research in your book?
Howard: I think that’s a good question. My read of evangelicalism for all its strengths, probably a real weakness is a sense of history or a sense of tradition. There’s often an attempt just to float free of the past and a lot of subjective inter-reading of the Bible. I think, especially the traditional voices that I mentioned I would not support their throne and alter politics, I think they often do have an acute critical eye on this type of subjectivism, individualism, an attempt to escape tradition which you sometimes find in sectors of evangelicalism.
Mohler: Well, I found God and the Atlantic fascinating and talking with an author I want to ask the question, doing the amount of research you had to do for this book, there’s always a kind of super abundance leftover. What remains, you think, after the publication of this book as research that you now know, perhaps, newly aware of, research that needs to be done yet.
Howard: Well, I think there could be, we just mentioned Mormonism. I think I only scratched the surface in looking at European views of Mormonism. I mentioned earlier all these 1848ers, there were quite a few, especially German speaking groups that came to the United States and lived in the upper mid-west. They often founded these very radical, secular free-thinking journals. Many of them only had short lives, but since most of them were in German and most Americans students, American PhDs don’t really do foreign languages that well, I think there’s some very interesting things that one could learn about these communities, that there’s a lot more interesting things that could be done.
Mohler: Professor Howard, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Howard: Well, thank you.
Mohler: Well that really was a very interesting conversation and also it is a reminder of the fact that you can read a book that can be a very different kind of intellectual conversation than the conversation with the author of the book. The author of the book himself has just a little distance from the book. And one of the very fun dimensions of this kind of conversation for me, a conversation with an author, is to be able to ask the author questions about the book that reveals things that you wouldn’t just get from reading the book by itself. And, by the way, I really want to commend you to read God and the Atlantic: America, Europe and the Religious Divide because you are going to find that it too will become an important intellectual conversation that begins with your own mind and goes outward to the conversations you will then have.
It is important to ask the question how others see us. And not just any and all others, but in the case of the United States, it’s particularly fascinating looking at this Era to ask how those who have given birth to the United States, those civilizational nations that were the cradle of the United States came to view this new nation. And it becomes clear as Professor Howard’s book lays bare in terms of the view of American religiosity coming from the European side that America was something of a puzzlement, something of an amazement. A horror to some in terms of their concern about all that had been set loose in terms of the pluralism of the American experience, and on the other hand, the hope on the part of some that America was indeed the shape of the future. I thought what was particularly helpful in Professor Howard’s divide between the conservative or traditionalist response on the one hand and the more modernizing or leftist response on the other was that both looked at the United States as, number one, an important sign of things to come and an intellectual question that from their side of the Atlantic was both worthy of and demanding of some kind of answer.
Now when you look at the traditionalist response, it is really interesting, isn’t it? Because we look at this and recognize that to talk about conservative, a word we so often use as we talk about conservatives and liberals requires some context and definition. Those who held to this kind of very organic, continental conservativism, and you would include the more traditional British conservatives in this line as well, they thought that if you broke the organic connection necessary for society, that connection between the throne and the alter, you are setting loose an experiment that would lead to the dissolution of the society. And of course, after all of the kinds of conflicts that Europe and European nations and the United Kingdom had experienced in the previous centuries, you could see that it would make immediate sense that if you break that organic unity, you might very well bring disaster right into the center of your own nation. And yet at the same time, America from its very beginning seemed to have something of an operational pluralism. And that both confounded and fascinated Europeans as well. From the traditionalist side there were theological concerns that today’s evangelicals would have to see as being, well, at least, legitimate theological concerns; concerns about the fracturing of the truth question in the midst of the political dynamic of pluralization. And that gets back to the question. To allow the many, does that insinuate that all are true or that all are right? We looked at the Jesuit Grassi who said, look if you have this kind of radical pluralization then there is no way to say that one way is better than any other or one way more true than any other. Well, that’s not true, but it is important to recognize that that is a very important question to ask, that is a real and present danger in terms of the very existence of pluralization. Of course, the other side of that is that we now look at Europe and recognize that pluralization was hardly limited to the United States and in that sense it was something of the sign of the future.
Looking at the question from what he identifies as the more secularizing left perspective, well there we look at the United States and we see the kind of exceptionalism that has puzzled sociologists and historians, observers of America for some time. How is it that as the majority of the nations of Europe, especially Western and Northern Europe have become so radically secularized, how is it that since the United Kingdom, the British Isles have also become so secularized, even looking at North America, that Canada has become so secularized, the United States has been very defiantly resistant to that kind of trajectory. You see of the frustration of someone like Karl Marx back in the middle of the nineteenth century. And yet at the same time, this is where someone like Peter Berger, whose name Professor Howard invoked, is really important to us. Because as he points out, well it better be the concern of American evangelicals to understand that secularization can happen in ways that are outside of the worldview and belief system or in ways that are more inside. In other words, many of our chief, doctrinal concerns can become secularized without the ardent, open hostility. Instead, what you can have in our context is the compromise that simply evacuating these categories of specific cognitive content. And on the other hand, what you have from this leftist response is a look at the United States, and perhaps, well condescension is really the only word that fits here, they looked at the United States and they saw that we were falling short of the future that they were certain must happen that would lead to freedom and enlightenment and sophistication.
Well, these are fascinating questions. Those two responses, of course continue amongst us. We’re hard to find. It’s more difficult to find that traditionalist response because those kind of conservatives are pretty thin on the ground, whether you are talking about the continent of Europe or even Great Britain. The other side of the question, the more secularizing leftist response is much more present in terms of the European intelligentsia. But here in the United States, isn’t it interesting to note that both of these questions are still very much among us, both of these patterns of response are still a part of our conversation as well. If not in this specific European form with the background of Europe’s wars and Europe’s union of throne and alter, then in our own very clear and present concern about the survival of faith in America, about the fate of sincere, deeply held doctrinal and theological theism in a world that is becoming increasingly secularized, perhaps even beyond the dreams of those in the nineteenth century. Reading this book is like reading some others that have come out in recent years; books that require us to think more deeply not only about the past, but about the present. And maybe that is the very definition of a historical book, well timed and well thought.
Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.