Religion in America: A Political History
French political scientist Denis Lacorne joined us on October 12 for a colloquium on his latest book, Religion in America. He began by explaining that Americans adopted a federal constitution in 1789 well before they shared a coherent national cultural and political identity. This meant that American national identity was tightly tied to the construction of national narratives—of the stories told by historians and political leaders in the course of American history.
Two of these narratives about the relation between religion and politics continue to influence our discourse today. The first is a secular narrative of religious freedom and separation of church and state, rooted in the Founding Fathers’ Enlightenment influences and seen in documents from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists to twentieth- century Supreme Court cases. The second is a romantic narrative of moral purity that highlights America’s religious origins and essential character; it was advanced famously in the 19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville and his contemporary George Bancroft.
In the conversation that followed, Lacorne described religious accommodationism as a middle ground between the two traditions sketched above, but noted the deep differences in how French and American societies actually accommodate religious minorities.