What we seem to have forgotten is how unique the circumstances were that made possible the establishment of the American compact on religion and politics. Perhaps now is the time to restore the much needed concept of American exceptionalism and remind ourselves of some basic facts. The most important one that set our experience apart from that of Europe was the absence of a strong Roman Catholic Church as a redoubt of intellectual and political opposition to the liberal-democratic ideas hatched by the Enlightenment – and thus also, the absence of a radical, atheist Enlightenment convinced that l’infâme must be écrasé. For over two centuries France, Italy, and Spain were rent by what can only be called existential struggles over the legitimacy of Catholic political theology and the revolutionary heritage of 1789. (Though the term “liberalism” is of Spanish coinage, as a political force it was weak in the whole of Catholic Europe until after the Second World War.) Neither side in this epic struggle was remotely interested in “toleration”; they wanted victory.
Looking beyond Europe, we note other things missing from the American landscape, quite literally. For example, there were no religious shrines to fight over, no holy cities, no temples, no sacred burial grounds (except those of the Native Americans, which were shamefully ignored). There also was a complete absence of what we would today call diversity: America was racially and culturally homogeneous in the early years of the republic, even if there were differences – in retrospect, incredibly minor – in Protestant affiliation. Yes, there were a few Catholics and Jews among the early immigrants, but the tone was set by Protestants of dissenting tendencies from the British Isles. The theological differences among them were swamped by the fact that everyone spoke the same language, cooked the same food, and looked to a shared history of persecution and emigration. It was a homogeneous country, and what comes with homogeneity, along with some troubling things, is trust.
I am forever amazed by the claim, or rather unsubstantiated assertion, that the values of 20th century democracy can somehow be traced to Christian principles. If anything, it can be traced to Christians existing in fear of each other. The separation was possible only because the similarities between these different groups were substantial enough to give hope that coexistence was possible if they simply relegated the differences to the private sphere. This homogeneity is no longer the case. Forgetting the racial, economic, cultural, and historical differences it is patently obvious that the mere theological differences are large enough that the kind of trust necessary to believe that one's fellow citizen will exemplify the kind good faith that will prevent grabs for power, is no longer possible. We are no longer talking about differences between Anglican and Presbyterians or Catholics and Lutherans. It might be said that these groups have histories of acquitting themselves murderously towards each other. This chastened them though. The groups vying for power now have greater theological differences and no history of violence to make them reticent to attempt coercion. The only proper response is not the provincial (in Lilla's terms) reassertion of the classic separation of church and state, a bourgeois secularism, but in the destruction of their intellectual pretenses and the removal of the mantle of respect they claim in our discourse.
To the highlighted selection, I am baffled by the claims I have read on Catholic blogs that the Catholic Church somehow bears responsibility for the emergence of the values of the contemporary West. After developing a theology to inculcate servility and submission to the Holy See in Europe, they have the audacity to claim that the story of the emergence of modernity is not the story of our wresting the reins of temporal authority from the Church but instead its full ideological realization. This is absurd on its face, and even a scanty survey of philosophy and literature after 1300 will confirm this. I won't go into the history of it but would simply put one question to the believers: Can you name any example of the Church, in an official, sanctioned capacity, acting in belhalf of a democratic movement and against a theocratic/monarchical/autocratic one before 1917? I don't think it can be done.