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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

American Religion in the European Mind: From Georg W. Hegel to George W. Bush

Tal Howard, Gordon College
Date: September 21, 2005
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Boisi Center

Event Recap

On September 21, the Boisi Center hosted Professor Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard of Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. Howard shared his recent work on anti-Americanism in Europe under the title, “American Religion in the European Mind: From Georg W. Hegel to George W. Bush.” He matched his provocative title with an equally provocative discussion of the roots of European anti- Americanism.

Contrary to explanations that locate America’s fall from grace among especially “highbrow” Europeans with the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the war in Iraq, Howard outlined a longer history of derision from both the “right” and the “left.” Crucial to this attitude, he argued, is the history of European criticism of the American religious scene. Howard illustrated his point with a tour through the pantheon of eighteenth and nineteenth-century European intellectuals. On the right, objections from the likes of Jacob Burckhardt, Max Weber, and Werner Sombart to the American religious situation focused on what they perceived as the absurd and outrageous forms of belief in the United States. The lack of a state church wrought cultural anarchy where, according to Swiss theologian Philip Schaff, “Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false ware at pleasure.” America was thus a religious wild card, unpredictable and unconnected to the safeguards of a traditional society. On the left, European critics were equally worried about America’s historical trajectory. From their perspective, America’s sin was not ignorance of tradition but that the young nation had preserved premodern religiosity all too well. Such diverse thinkers as the Marquis de Condorcet, Georg Hegel, and Karl Marx, lamented this retention of “old world” religious forms that blocked the progressive march of history. Howard concluded by suggesting that Americans ought to reflect on these longstanding criticisms—whatever their accuracy—as a tool toward greater self-understanding.

More importantly, he stressed that to ignore the genealogy of anti-Americanism is to misunderstand the nature of the European mind-set. Without a sense of how deeply embedded anti-American religious prejudice runs in European culture and how closely tied it is to anti- Americanism generally, Howard argued, we underestimate both the intensity of these attitudes and their staying power beyond the administration of George W. Bush.