Review: God and the Atlantic by Thomas Howard

Thomas Albert Howard is the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He has published several works dealing with the history of Christian thought. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in European Intellectual history.

God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide is a fascinating book that goes into great detail about the views of prominent European authors during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries concerning American religion. There are two basic European views that Howard describes in this work. These views are dependent on whether one was an old-world conservative, or whether they were a secularist.

The first view discussed from the old-world conservatives would be that of derision. They viewed American religion as a place filled with various religious sects. In fact, America is portrayed as a land where each man has his own religion and shares nothing in common with his neighbor. Some of the views of the European elite were downright fictitious holding that Americans had some of the most abnormally fantastic rituals the world had ever seen. Part of the predisposition of this first view was due to the political and religious bent towards a government that was tied to the state.  Therefore, these Europeans typically looked with disdain upon American religion, and their politics.

The second view could be connected with the secularist views that came about after the French Revolution. Those who were secularist also looked over to the New World with some derision because they saw a fantastic (in the since of fantasy) religion. Or, perhaps, they saw too much religion in the new world for their taste. The secularist followed the evolutionary view of history espoused by Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, to name a few. Therefore, their view of America was that it was regressing back to a pre-modern superstitious religion; not progressing towards a scientific philosophical ideal.

In contrast, Howard holds up two European born intellectuals who spent some time in the United States. The first is Philip Schaff and the second is Jacques Maritain. Howard devotes more attention to Maritain, and probably rightly so. Maritain pointed out the European views were not based on actual first-hand knowledge of the United States but rather they were rooted in the two ideologies of old-world religion and secularism. Therefore these views were skewed. Maritain offered a mediating voice to both sides of the Atlantic.

What surprised me most about the work was the conclusion. Howard, a fine writer, provides some excellent reflections given his evidence. He connects these views to the post-War (World War II) views of America by Europeans and shows that they are the backdrop for the current ideological division between America and Europe. The conclusion is very insightful and I highly recommend it. But you must first wade through some of the more laborious lists of people and the quotations of their beliefs (which I can imagine for some may be boring…not for me).

With that said, there are several advantages to reading this book. First, history always seems to bring a sobering effect to current events. The religious and political divide is connected to the two diametrically opposed views in the U.S. today. Howard’s work provides a sober, even-handed approach to current controversy. Second, as I am an evangelical Christian, Howard’s work allows me to see the current intellectual trends going on in Europe as they enter post-secularism. This is also sobering as it seems too many Christians are bombastic towards such movements (because they view them as pagan) when attention to these movements may help Christians begin a dialog with those who maybe don’t believe the same about religion as they do. In short, it may help the Christian to be more conversant with others from differing world views.

Finally, I think anyone, from either the right or the left politically, could pick up Howard’s book and find it to be a great benefit in understanding the view that is “across the aisle.” It can help someone to understand, and possibly appreciate, someone with different political and religious views and perhaps provide a balanced approach to how the nation may move forward despite its diversity in the future without giving too much sway to either evangelicalism or secularism. Thus, preserving the founding right of this country to worship in whatever way, within reason, one sees fit.