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God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide
Thomas Albert Howard
Oxford University Press, 2011
272 pp., $51.00
John G. Turner
During a semester abroad in Mainz, Germany, in the mid-1990s, I sampled lectures on the New Testament from the university's Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät. Fifteen years later, I can only remember two things the professor said in the course of the semester. First, when discussing a gospel account of a healing, he commented that "only some people in America" believed that such miracles actually occurred. Later on, he observed that when American theologians—he at least conceded that such rarities existed—happened upon an idea, they did so unaware that German theologians had fully vetted it several decades earlier. He might have added that few American Christians wanted their ministers to stumble upon any recent theological insights, from Germany or anywhere else. Die Amerikaner: superstitious, backward, ignorant.
In God and the Atlantic, Thomas Albert Howard analyzes the venerable history of European criticism and derision of American religion. "[Woodrow] Wilson talks like Jesus Christ and acts like Lloyd George," French President Georges Clemenceau complained at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. No one accused George W. Bush of speaking like Jesus, but European dissatisfaction with his purportedly evangelical administration produced fresh discussions of a longstanding "transatlantic religious gap" between a religious United States and a secularized Western Europe.
The many sneering dismissals of America and American religion that Howard includes in God and the Atlantic are themselves worth the price of admission. They range across the span of U.S. history, from the French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand's assessment of the early Republic ("The states of America are a country where there are thirty-two religions, but there is only one course at dinner—and it's bad") to the pithy judgment of postmodern critic Jean Baudrillard ("the only remaining primitive society"), none of them surpassing the loathing expressed by the philosopher Martin Heidegger ...