Pretty much from the Founding, American religious culture has been a mixture of Enlightenment rationalism and dissenting Protestantism. These two influences have made American religious culture unique, though some argue that America is successfully exporting its culture around the world today. Denis Lacorne (Sciences Po, Paris) discusses the American duality in his new book, Religion in America: A Political History (Columbia University Press 2011). A description follows. — MLM
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.
Generally here at CLR Forum we provide notices of new or forthcoming books in law and religion. But from time to time we will also revisit a classic in the law and religion canon. The first in this occasional series is the magisterial Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650 (CUP) by Brian Tierney. Many other books of Professor Tierney’s could have been selected — his, The Idea of Natural Rights, or The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, for example. But if you are interested in the origins of constitutional thought, this book is a deeply learned and elegant treatment.
I once had the privilege of listening to Professor Tierney deliver a talk on Locke and natural law a couple of years ago. One had the impression of a master surveying an intellectual continent from a great height, a man who was capable of capturing in just a few words the core of an enormous and complicated area of inquiry. I will never forget it. A description of the book follows. — MOD
To understand the growth of Western constitutional thought, we need to consider both ecclesiology and political theory, ideas about the Church as well as ideas about the state. In this book Professor Tierney traces the interplay between ecclesiastical and secular theories of government from the twelfth century to the seventeenth. He shows how ideas revived from the ancient past – Roman law, Aristotelian political philosophy, teachings of Church fathers – interacted with the realities of medieval society to produce distinctively new doctrines of constitutional government in Church and state. The study moves from the Roman and canon lawyers of the twelfth century to various thirteenth-century theories of consent; later sections consider fifteenth-century conciliarism and aspects of seventeenth-century constitutional thought. Fresh approaches are suggested to the work of several figures of central importance in the history of Western political theory. Among the authors considered are Thomas Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua, Jean Gerson, Nicholas of Cusa and Althusius, along with many lesser-known authors who contributed significantly to the growth of the Western constitutional tradition.