The eminent French historian, Alain Besançon, specialized early in his writing life on communist Russia. One of his better-known themes is that the Soviet Union was one of the first cases of the purely “ideological” regime–the regime founded solely on political ideas disconnected from the lived experience of its people. Besançon has more recently written interestingly and controversially about Islam, arguing that Islam is neither a “revealed” religion nor a “natural” religion (in the way Roman paganism was), but instead represents a “third way”–as embodying “the natural religion of the revealed God.”
Here is a new book in which Besançon turns his attention to the United States: Protestant Nation: The Fragile Christian Roots of America’s Greatness. The publisher is St. Augustine’s Press.
Alain Besançon’s studies, over decades, on Russia, France, Islam, and art have convinced him that “that nothing is comprehensible if one neglects the religious choices that determine a historical destiny.” His aim is to comprehend the most powerful nation on the earth, and he was convinced that Protestantism was the key to America. The question of Protestantism and its origins implicated, in turn, the origins of the Reformation and thus the problem of the moral and political meaning of Christianity itself. And Besançon traces theological dynamic that was to stamp the Reformation, behind Luther’s break with Rome, to the late medieval nominalists’ failure to maintain the fragile communion that Thomas Aquinas had articulated between love and intellect.
This then is the ambition of this elegant and magisterial essay: to explore the question of the spirit of America as bound up with the most fundamental and most problematic promise of Christianity: the union of heart and mind. This exploration leads the reader, after a deft analysis of Nominalism, through a luminous tour of the sources of modern Christianity that includes the revival of speculative mysticism in authors such as Meister Eckhart and Tauler, the devotion moderna, the main figures and movements of the Reformation proper, a brilliant digest of Anglicanism, and a survey of Puritanism in England and America. This uniquely synoptic exploration concludes with the emergence of a democratic religion of humanity, a faith whose future is as uncertain as its grasp of the modern spirit’s Christian sources that Alain Besançon has so judiciously laid bare.