When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.
I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.
None of my students, so far as I can tell, consider themselves believers in any conventional sense, though I assume that most are at least nominally Roman Catholic, and have been baptized and confirmed. Italians, like most of us, hedge their bets; and given the remarkable closeness of Italian families, and the still-formidable presence of the Italian mama, I suspect that such young people go to mass more often than they let on.
But they are utterly without the kind of anti-religious or anti-clerical edge to their sentiments that one might expect, and seem genuinely curious to understand the reasons behind the otherwise inexplicable (to them) persistence of religion in America. They came into the course knowing nothing whatever about Protestantism, and are astonished to find out that the New England Puritans were such formidable intellects, to read documents like James Madison’s magisterial “Memorial and Remonstrance,” and to see the truth in Tocqueville’s assertion that in America, the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion actually supported one another, and that the Enlightenment and Protestantism coexisted with remarkable comfort.
Above all, they are curious: curious about revivalism and its relationship to social reform movements, curious about Mormonism, curious about all the utopian experiments of the 19th century and all the other wild edges of American religion, curious about the centrality of the conversion experience in American evangelicalism, about how Protestants understood the authority of the Bible, and perhaps above all, about the voluntaristic character of American religion. The Baptist emphasis on the primacy of the uncoerced conscience: this is an ideal that clearly intrigues them.
In other words, it is all entirely new to them, so that the experience of teaching them has been energizing, and has caused me to see my own subject afresh. (Thank you, Senator Fulbright.) From the inside of American culture, one is at times impressed by nothing so much as the anarchy and inanity of American religion: its thinness, its institutional chaos, its individualism, its trendiness, its willingness to pander to the consumer and to the culture. These observations remain as valid as ever. And yet my experiences here, listening to students who have grown up in a largely monochromatic religious culture, in which the choices placed before them are far more stark, cast it all in a different light.
We Americans take our freedoms too lightly in other respects, and our highly voluntaristic religious culture—and the boisterous vitality and variety of religious expression that have resulted from it—is no exception. Not all of what it produces is to my taste. But the exercise of freedom is not the same thing as good taste. “It is the duty of every man,” Madison said, “to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him.” My Italian students help me to see anew the grandeur in those words.