Madison’s USA Eludes Paris NPR Reporter

Hello from rural Pennsylvania! On Saturday we flew over to the US as you saw yesterday if you follow me on Instagram. In explaining, I had a bit of “1700s” fun in describing the journey in the English of that era:

"Yesterday's journey from London's main port of air took 8 hours. We landed in the city of New York at the air landing port named in honor of the Irish and Catholic president of America in the middle of last century. Upon procuring rental transport from a horseless carriage company which once was highly recommended by a gentleman imprisoned afterwards, but now soon we have read to be set free, we proceeded on the jammed Dutch road north to seek a crossing at the bridge of Whitestone. Successfully passing over that impressive if somewhat aging structure at last, we turned west to Manhattan and sought the bridge of General Washington. Approaching it, as always, men were laboring to fill holes in the road and had even closed two of three lanes to accomplish their task. Ah, to be home. I recall always when I return to my city of birth how my fellow New Yorkers in their vehicles also consider lanes not to be something which applies to them but only to others. Also if you interfere with their efforts to gain three seconds' advantage they will accuse you of recklessness yourself often while employing certain hand gestures and perhaps raising their voices dramatically in your direction. Nearly across the bridge to New Jersey, I drew my lady's attention to the toll booths opposite before which such terrible scandal had occurred some years ago that we had heard the bombastic governor of that state hath seen his further political ambitions shattered. Proceeding on through the hills of Jersey some additional hour or two, at last we reached that remote border area of Pennsylvania named Delaware Water Gap. Father was still awake at the late hour at which we arrived at his home, and he greeted us warmly. As you see the weather this morning, unfortunately, is rather too much as 'tis so often in England. I beg your pardon, Father has just now returned to the kitchen table, so I bid you a good day, wherever you may be."😂🛫🌎🇬🇧🇺🇸 . #travel #humor #humour #eighteenthcentury #NewYork #writersofinstagram #authorsofinstagram #writers #authors #expats #expatlife #USA #rural #countryside #Pennsylvania #NewJersey #history #politics #photo #photography #weather #July #nature

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We’re here mostly to see my father and to spend time in the Catskills. The Catskill Mountains are about 150 miles north of New York City and have been one of my favorite places for years. I think of them now, in a real sense, as “home.”

This issue had also been on my mind for a few days, leading me to begin composing this post while on the flight to JFK. You may recall I wrote the other day that I aim to be detached and non-judgmental of my fellow Americans at home. I do so because I feel foreigners are more likely to listen to me as an American, which is why I think hard on what I am about to say when it comes to what we are as Americans and why.

Then there are American reporters based abroad who attempt to explain what Americans are. Often those same reporters appear themselves not well-grounded in what they are talking about. Consider this tweet from US National Public Radio (NPR) Paris reporter Eleanor Beardsley:

I like NPR and stream it in England on occasion, but that tweet irritated me in its vacuousness masquerading as profundity. I checked and found the “910” telephone area code is in North Carolina, yet I thought one might well also see such signage here in northeast Pennsylvania or in the Catskills. Although some in urban areas may imagine one only encounters such “backwardness” in the southern “Bible Belt,” it is certainly not restricted to there.

I detected in that tweet, first, an effort to belittle Americans who proselytize in that manner because, you know, “they don’t do it that way” in supposedly more “enlightened” France – and seemed justified in that feeling when I scrolled through the responses to it. Second, in comparing that American Christian “everywhere” religiosity to what one sees in “Muslim countries” (apparently “Muslim countries” are all the same), she comes across as trying to ridicule those Christian Americans because they are behaving, she holds, like, well, Muslims, whom (one assumes she believes) they despise; and yet in their insular, “they’ve never been to France” hick outlooks, those American Christians are too “unsophisticated” to realize it. Lastly, presumably, though, she does not mean in doing that even inadvertently to barb Muslims’ religiosity in equating it to that of those Christian Americans she had just barbed.

I think I know a few things about France and America. I have over the years also known quite a few Catholic French in “secular” France. Therefore in a respectful response I pointed out to her, as well as to France 24 anchor François Picard – who had retweeted her tweet, which was how I saw it in the first place – what appears to have eluded her, “actually”:

Notice: those US federal government holidays in 2017 are as follows:

[Screen capture of a U.S. Government web site.]

And what and whom do they honor? They revolve mostly around “great men,” recollections of war dead and service, national events, and other decidedly irreligious days. Even Thanksgiving is not a proper Christian holiday.

Yes, in the U.S. the Christian Christmas Day is a federal holiday. However, that is not owing to Christian doctrinal reasons, but came about because with nearly all of those working in the US government being Christians, few actually wanted to work that day. So it was declared a holiday. More tellingly, note that there is no US government equivalent holiday for Easter Sunday – the single most important day in the Christian calendar.

France’s state as officially “non-religious” is a direct outgrowth of the French Revolution. Prior to it, the Roman Catholic Church functioned hand in glove with the monarchy and aristocracy. When revolutionaries overthrew the political power of the King and aristocracy, they also went after the Church – in doing so, they killed or chased into exile thousands of priests, nuns, and ordinary observant Catholics.

[Portrait of President James Madison, 1816, by John Vanderlyn (1775–1852). Public Domain.]

The US had no such similar experience with a powerful church in league with government. Yes, in colonial America there were locally strong churches in states, towns and villages – especially in New England. But they were nothing compared to the power and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church in pre-1789 France.

Some of the states in the newly independent US did have “established” churches as holdovers from British colonial rule. For example, in Virginia, the largest state, the Episcopalian church (the independent US version doctrinally of the Church of England) was effectively a “state church.” “Dissenters,” such as Baptists, resented state monies going towards that church.

The Episcopal church’s preferred status was ended by the Virginia state legislature in a move begun by Thomas Jefferson, and successfully concluded by James Madison, in 1786. But that is not to imply it was easy to end the “establishment.” Writing to Madison from France after Madison had sought advice from him on how to deal with the strong opposition to “disestablishment” coming from the popular orator and devout Patrick Henry, Jefferson replied sarcastically that what they probably needed to do was to pray “devoutly” for Henry’s death.

The eventual Constitution’s 1st Amendment, part of the “Bill of Rights,” was penned a few years later primarily by Madison. It prevented the new federal government from passing any law creating a state-supported church. It upholds as well the right of Americans to the free exercise of their religion.

In short, there would be no “Church of America” as there was a Church of England.

Americans were placed on an equal footing in terms of their “religious” relationship with the federal government. In a world at the time where religion was most everywhere else closely connected to earthly governance, that was a novelty. It would be reflected in the likes of this now famous assertion in this letter from President Washington – and it is reasonably argued that then Secretary of State Jefferson drafted it – to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Under the 1st Amendment, Americans’ religiosity post-independence evolved into a “free market” one, which is precisely what Madison wanted to see. Slippery and careful in his opposition to slavery, separation of church and state was in comparison the singular issue on which Madison was the most consistent over his entire long lifetime. The eventual fourth president of the United States even believed that the government should not provide chaplains in the military.

It was not a one-way street either. Madison believed government in turn should also be kept from meddling in religion: for instance, without a state church, no US government official would appoint bishops as was the case in England. He believed if government got involved in religion, as in England, the free exercise of religion based on personal conscience itself would suffer, too. Indeed falling Church of England attendance is not a new thing in the 20th and 21st centuries; even in the 1700s it was already being lamented that regular attendance at the established church’s services was falling year on year.

Since Madison’s death in 1836 the then almost entirely Protestant US has changed beyond recognition. In his time “religious diversity” essentially meant differing Protestant sects, with a few Roman Catholics and a smattering of Jews. Muslims and others were virtually unheard of.

Madison would likely be astonished by the faiths that are found in America today. In 2017, Protestants, Roman Catholics (today’s US is over 25 percent Roman Catholic, compared to about 1-2 percent in 1776), Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others are mostly living harmoniously together. He would probably assert that as proof that his way is the best way: a multitude of competing factions, whether in politics, or in religion, protects everyone’s liberty.

Although it is generally assumed that the mass of French are religiously indifferent, nearly ten million Roman Catholics attend church regularly or occasionally. And they include young people quite willing to voice their views in public. Moreover, although it has gotten little coverage in discussions about him, the new president, thirty-nine year old Emmanuel Macron, while born into a non-religious household had decided at age twelve that he wanted to be baptised and subsequently attended a Catholic school. (Far better known is what he as a teenager felt about a teacher at that school just a few years after that.)

While officially “secular,” France’s government, Madison might well argue, has become almost “hostile” to religion. For example he would probably view France’s ongoing battle over looking to curb the wearing of “Islamic” attire in public places as meddling in personal opinion. Indeed the “secular” France which so impresses NPR’s Ms. Beardsley because she doesn’t regularly see billboards along roadsides exalting Jesus Christ, officially recognizes on the Monday after Easter, in the form of a public holiday, the Christian belief in the Resurrection – among other public holidays granted in honor of saints.

Madison believed government should neither prefer any one religion, nor be hostile towards any of its citizens’ beliefs. The difference between citizens freely professing their faith by tacking up billboards amidst what one could term a “capitalist” competition between sects peacefully seeking new members, or individuals walking around in the public space dressed as he or she believes is religiously required of them vs. the state professing “secularism” while in law becoming rather too involved in doctrinal faith and assailing individuals’ public professions of their personal beliefs, is an important distinction in terms of “separation of church and state” that seems lost on quite a few Americans both at home and abroad – including, it appears, on NPR reporters.

If that all seems a bit “academic,” let’s conclude this way. American reporters and writers wowed by Paris, and “informing” Americans back home about French “secularism” without those Americans in France evidently fully understanding it themselves, has contributed to a gulf of cultural misunderstanding. The mistaken belief passed around that the French are as a consequence “irreligious” and far more “progressive” than “backwards” Americans has over time fostered the social misimpression they are also generally more “relaxed” sexually than “repressed” Americans. I will never forget a Catholic Frenchwoman who had been an au pair in suburban Washington, D.C., telling me in Paris that she had been disgusted by the fact that American guys she had met seemed to imagine Frenchwomen were “loose” and would jump into bed with them at the drop of a hat.

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.