Rethinking secularism:

Was antebellum America secular?

posted by Michael Warner

The question “Was Antebellum America Secular?” obviously depends on what one means by secular. Because the term is dialectical by nature and immanent to the struggles of the age, we cannot expect it to be a neutral analytic framework; like secularism or religion, it requires constant qualification to be of any analytic use. As Gauri Viswanathan has noted, in many polemical contexts “words like ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ have lost their descriptive value and function instead as signposts to given attitudes.” It is almost impossible to see the question of my title without anticipating that a question of validity will be at stake.

And indeed in American media the question is taken at face value and given opposite answers, with strong normative implications. In the “Yes” camp are people like Susan Jacoby, whose book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) argued that America, contrary to the claims of the then-ascendant religious right, had been founded in rationalist skepticism about religion. (Despite its subtitle, which might promise some inquiry into historical conditions, the book is a narrative of heroic secularists and a digest of their “heritage.”) In the “No” camp are evangelical historians such as David Barton, who believes that America was founded as a Christian republic, with no presumption of equal participation by Jews, or atheists, let alone Muslims; even Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” he argues, was meant as a “one-directional” wall (if one can imagine such a thing), blocking government out of religion but not the other way around.

The disagreement between Jacoby and Barton has become a classic example of an echo chamber effect. Both have websites and enthusiastic followings (especially Barton, who essentially self-publishes), and both are likely to remain indifferent to anything that might be said here. (Jacoby’s is a simple author site but Barton’s is much more extensive; it also attracts rebuttals on many counter-websites.) Both positions, though stated in their extreme and polemical form in the nonacademic press, have more or less respectable versions that hold considerable power, especially in law.

Barton is a former Vice Chairman of the Republican Party in Texas, and his historical narrative is designed to show that party politics and Protestant piety go hand in hand. Indeed, he thinks that America was founded on just that idea, before it was betrayed. His website, Wallbuilders, leads with a news section before promoting its own historical justifications. In the summer of 2012 one lead news item was this:

Conservative historian David Barton, in his outstanding new book, “The Jefferson Lies: Exploring the Myths You’ve Always Known About Thomas Jefferson,” has once again presented an opus that shines the light of truth on the lies and propaganda of atheism, progressivism, liberalism, humanism and secular elites who possess a venal hatred for American exceptionalism…

The others were all Fox-style headlines about gay people and Obamacare. The historical items included a Daniel Webster statement, marshaled on the website as “arguing persuasively . . . for requiring a profession of belief in the Christian religion as a qualification for holding public office.” In fact it doesn’t, if you read it carefully, but that isn’t my point. The point is that historical questions about antebellum secularity tend to bear strong normative burdens generated by presentist understandings of the stakes.

The recent critical literature on secularity, as many readers of this blog already know, has broken with the questions and assumptions of Jacoby and Barton alike, in a series of ways. One of the most basic themes in the literature is that modern secularity—in the Euro-American North Atlantic and in the colonial contexts that these nations created—gets much of its meaning from the consolidation of “religion” as a special form of belief and experience, a process that accompanied the development of rival modes of legitimacy and moral feeling. What came to be the privileged markers of religiosity, moreover, are characteristic of Christian (even Protestant) self-understandings. The key questions are what you believe (with the assumption that you attach yourself to propositional attitudes) and how strongly you believe it (since “conscience” has trumping force). Other modes of religiosity are either sidelined (as with ritual practice, collective worship, or legal observance, where belief in the usual sense may not be at stake at all), denigrated (as in the pejorative meaning now given to “piety”), or recognized only as a social or political function only incidentally associated with religion (as with family law or the provision of welfare services). One of the effects of secular governance, both in how it regulates and in how it recognizes, has been to reshape all forms of religion in this mold, with greater or lesser degrees of success. In recognizing religions, it establishes equivalences; sets norms; and sometimes even acts as an ecclesiastical authority deciding what is or isn’t a legitimate exercise of religion. As a consequence of this process, we cannot answer questions about how religious or how secular a culture is by measuring the extent of religious belief. Despite powerfully enduring institutions and long-durée patterns of culture—not to mention the active and constant work that so many parties devote to preserving the illusion of permanence in categories like religion—what counts as religiosity changes, both in legal-political spheres of elite power and in the organization of ordinary life.

Once we begin to think of secularism as the background created by the foreground of “religion” so conceived, secularism no longer seems the right word. Secularism suggests indeed something on the same plane as religion: a body of beliefs and doctrines more or less present to consciousness as a distinguishing and optional affiliation. But most of the work of the last decade or so has not been about secularism in that sense, but about the secular conditions that structure even the religious once religiosity has become one option among others—conditions to which some forms of religiosity are much more adapted than others. For this reason Charles Taylor speaks of secularity rather than secularism, though the distinction is not always sharp. Secularity refers to a variety of social/cultural/political conditions that structure the question of religious adherence in ways not usually present to consciousness, even though our decision in response to that question is said to resolve our relation to the fundamental conditions of our existence. Whenever we seem to confront a choice between religion and secularism, in short, we may be sure that the form of the choice is not ours.

The new literature on secularism, then, for all its analytic distance on the presentist stakes of conflict, is not without normative implications. It’s just that those implications are deeply unsettling. What normative stances are available to secularism so named? What do the secular norms of the legal-juridical sphere have to do with my personal resolution of the demands made on me to commit to some scheme of belief or another? Are the available options of religiosity or “spirituality” themselves ordered by this regulatory discourse? It is difficult to be a conscious human being in mediatic societies without meeting this demand for commitment; but since that demand arises most often in a field defined by political antagonism, what are my chances of prescinding from the given forms of antagonism?

Few books illustrate this tension between analytic distance and normative involvement more than John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. It is an imaginative and intelligent engagement with the critical literature I have been referring to, including the very different intellectual programs of Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. Modern’s book is also argumentatively elusive, presenting itself as a series of studies rather than consecutive exposition. The case studies are not what one might predict, given the title: evangelical understandings of mass media; the development of the category of “spirituality” in the matrix of phrenologists and spiritualists; prison reform at Sing Sing; and fantasies about machines—with fragmentary comments on Moby-Dick throughout.

A reader who has not been following the recent literature on secularity will be surprised to find that Secularism in Antebellum America is mainly about evangelicals and spiritualists. The organization of the book would seem to put him in the “No” camp in response to the question of my title, with David Barton. But in Modern’s book the dialectical relation of the terms takes the form of paradox. Perhaps too much, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

Modern’s most compelling chapter, titled “Evangelical Secularism,” lays out the paradox; even its title to most readers will seem oxymoronic. Modern beautifully analyzes one side of the semiotic ideology of antebellum evangelicals : its imagination of media and the social field. (I say “one side” because he does not take up the language of sincerity, conversion, and experience, as Webb Keane does so well in Christian Moderns.) Modern examines the tract and Bible societies, with their massive projects of publication and colportage, as well as the tracts themselves and such statements of evangelical theory as Robert Baird’s Religion in America (1842). Following such scholars as David Nord and Candy Brown, but giving their work a new critical analysis, he examines the imagination of the social behind the evangelical obsession with networks, technology, and communication. Evangelicals of the period equated true religion with a conversionist public discourse, which of its own logic required mass dissemination at the same time that it pointed to its own omnipresence as a sign of its spontaneous authenticity. Evangelical religiosity was fused with a modern semiotic ideology of connectivity and circulation as progressive forces capable of establishing a broad social and religious order by the unfolding of their own immanent dynamic principles. (Here Modern intersects with, but does not discuss, important recent analyses of evangelicalism as modern social movement; see Craig Calhoun’s The Roots of Radicalism or Michael Young’s Bearing Witness Against Sin.) If America was in many important ways secular by the antebellum period, he concludes, it was so largely because of evangelicals themselves.

In making this argument, Modern amplifies a theme of Charles Taylor, who has argued in A Secular Age that the long history of secularity consists more of unintended consequences to reform movements within Christianity than to a hostile campaign of suppression or emancipation from without. In the American case my own current research has led me to go further and say that the evangelical normalization of conversionist discourse as a criterion of religiosity directly construed society as secular even before there were any secularists in the modern sense of that term. Evangelical conceptions of conscience and conversion, together with evangelical practices of the public sphere and the voluntary system, are not only the markers of evangelical modernity but the very conditions from which the default secularity of the social is projected.

The effects went beyond the evangelical organizations themselves; Modern notes that the antebellum period, far from being a “flowering of religious pluralism,” was marked by a shared resonance of such themes among “conservative evangelicals, liberal, experimental, and erstwhile Protestants” (15), partly because evangelicalism was “an imperial discourse” that colonized its rivals, setting the terms by which people could recognize themselves as religious. If that is true, it seems to follow that a history of the secular in the period should look beyond the surface differences and conflicts among these different branches of Protestantism. Because of the way they imagined their social world, they all benefitted from the embedding of a “nonspecific Protestantism,” as Tracy Fessenden calls it, at the same time that they understood their own religiosity fitting their own voluntary affiliation into the normative order of large-scale networks and publics. For Modern, the close relation between evangelical forms of religiosity and a secular social imaginary points us to what is most intractable and analytically challenging about modern secularism: the way it resides not just in overt doctrinal positions of political or ethical philosophy, but in the fabric of modern sociality, at such a deep level that the manifest conflict between religion and secularism, while real, is also structured by misrecognition.

I have somewhat adapted Modern’s argument in summarizing it this way. Here’s the way he puts it: “I have chosen the name secularism to refer to that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense….To make inquiries into secularism is to ask how certain concepts of religion (and the social formations that revolve around them) became consonant with the way things were—in essence—as portrayed by a secular political order” (7-8). This sounds a lot like some concepts of ideology, though Modern also thinks that secularism “cannot be approached as an ideological ruse” because “it neither deceived nor promulgated inaccurate representations of reality. On the contrary, secularism has been part and parcel to the very constitution of the real” (9).

While the intellectual ambition in this argument is formidable, and identifies a key conceptual difficulty in the analysis of secularity, two very significant problems arise from Modern’s decision to use “the name secularism” for this comprehensive formation. The first is that the forms of antagonism disappear from analysis; they look epiphenomenal. But anyone familiar with the intense antebellum conflicts among different versions of religiosity will no doubt feel that something is lost in an analysis that focuses only on the shared background. Modern expresses understandable dissatisfaction with the disciplinary norms of historians, who seem to feel that historical analysis must be rooted in and faithful to the self-understandings of all its actors; he wants instead to tell stories about the taken-for-granted or the misrecognized. But surely the very field of religious competition is part of that taken-for-granted background. That field was both delimited by violent forms of exclusion, as in the killing of Joseph Smith, and at the same time expanded throughout the public sphere, as in the overturning of blasphemy laws in the same period. This is, after all, a period dominated by rivalry between Southern and Northern versions of religious nationalism; the Confederate Constitution has a preamble polemically designed to counteract the godlessness of the Union counterpart. The different parties of religious struggle might have shared elements of a secular metaphysics, but they certainly put competing spins on its political implications. To what degree did secularity get its shape from antagonisms and spaces of competition rather than agreement?

A second problem is that secularism itself disappears. Those versions of secularism that are localizable as projects of governance, ethics, or struggle are so flattened as to be barely distinguishable from their background conditioning. I would suggest that a distinction between secularity and secularism is analytically necessary here, though to say this is to open two very large problems: what is the relation between secularity (as background) and those projects of secularism that can appear as specific positions against that background? And second, how are we to understand the apparent contradictions between those versions of secularism that reside in governmentality or liberal politics, and those that, like religion, orient persons to their existential conditions in an ethical problematic?

I take these as elementary questions about secularity, but it is astonishing how often they are obscured. The currently fashionable talk of the “post-secular,” for example, rests on a conflation of secularity with a specific program of political secularism; the latter may be in crisis, but there is no way of telling how deep that crisis is without understanding how political secularism is only one manifestation of secularity.

We are so accustomed to thinking of secularism as a body of doctrine deriving from the highly rationalizing elites of law and politics that we might forget that such elites do not simply form themselves.

Just as there is always a gap between theological discourse and “lived religion,” so there is a gap between legal-political secularist discourse and ordinary secularity. Take disestablishment—apparently the simplest doctrine in the whole repertoire of secularism. But what, in practice, did establishment mean? The range of variation in the colonial and early national period was wide, but often included: levying taxes for clerical salaries, choosing ministers, allotting land and labor for meetinghouses, compelling attendance, dividing time through sabbath laws, mapping the local hierarchy into the seating charts of the meeting house, ritually organizing government functions such as elections and meetings, recognizing legitimate forms of private life through personal and family law, monopolizing public ritual discourse, maintaining a joint church/state monopoly of consecrations for marriage and other functions, joint keeping of birth/death records, delivering care, etc. These elements were not fused by principle; all were highly variable in practice, and differently in different jurisdictions. Each was contested in some cases, and could sometimes be suspended or adapted for special arrangements, as when Baptists or separate Congregationalists secured meetinghouses in territories theoretically covered by another congregation. In what contexts did people try to philosophize or rationalize the field of variation in light of a consistent principle? And in what contexts did people intervene to change practices in order to make them conform to a conception of principle? Even on this basic question, doctrinal discourse is no reliable map to the practical questions it tried to codify. Disestablishment in the discourse of elites sounds like a clear matter of principle; disestablishment on the ground came by fits and starts over a very long period and was often significantly out of sync with common dogma.

Although Modern makes no distinction between the background conditions of secularity and secularism, the complicated relation between them is central to his argument. He puts it, rather oddly to my mind, in the language of enchantment. Against those who think of disenchantment as a force that battered religion and reduced it to private belief, he suggests that disenchantment “has been one of the most significant enchantments of the secular age, registering its effects from a distance and in the process conjuring a host of normative assumptions about how reality is in essence. Consequently, what is most remarkable about spirituality in the antebellum period is how it reflected the impossibility of distinguishing between disenchantment and enchantment even as this division was relentlessly pursued in its name” (124). By “enchantment” Modern seems to mean the forces that impinge on subjects and condition them in ways they do not control. The very technologies that put us in control—or so we assure ourselves—are themselves things we do not control; Modern takes this to mean that the disenchanters are the most enchanted of all. Further, he notes another dimension of enchantment in the self-confirming loops between those political projects we generate for establishing a right order of religion and the epistemic frames that have already made it seem inevitable that such an order of religion should be the only true one. Think for example of the contradiction of Christian nationalism: we inhabit a Christian nation but at the same time we must convert it from secularism to make it a Christian nation. The same relation holds, in Modern’s view, for the kind of secularity that confirms itself as a default condition by means of a disciplinary discourse on religion.

I think he is pointing to something important, but I would put it in a different way. This use of the term enchantment has almost nothing to do with what it means in Max Weber’s work. As I’ve noted elsewhere, most scholarly discourse in English about enchantment suffers from a translation problem. Weber’s term is closer to “demagicalization.” In English, “enchantment” is associated with positive affects such as wonder and reverence, and only under the sway of such associations, I think, can anyone imagine that “reenchantment” would be a good thing, let alone a change that could be willed into being. Taylor has usefully expanded the contrast with his analysis of the “buffered” self of modernity, reminding us thereby of the gains that make disenchantment invaluable to modern subjects, to the point that in many ways we cannot imagine giving them up. (Simon During’s excellent study of secular magic can be taken in this sense as an account of the performative production of a buffered self by means of an entertainment industry of enchantment.)

Modern may have that analysis in mind, since the point seems to be that the freely affiliating and buffered persons of evangelical/secular religiosity are themselves conditioned and disciplined by the normative sociality in which religion shows up for them. And this is a profound insight. But to call it enchantment lacks the specificity of demagicalizing projects within religion, and of the distinctive achievements of buffering. And by identifying disenchantment simply as a higher form of enchantment Modern leaves the analysis in a frozen paradox, with more than a hint of a familiar style of intellectual pathos. When the object of critique is generalized and removed from the space of antagonism, critique itself seems powerless against it; or rather, critique projects from its own powerlessness a problem that cannot be addressed, and before which one can only stand in a vaguely radical appreciation of the tragic. Modern is much given to the Derridean language of “haunting” to perform this pathos.

Modern detects enchantment in the heavy reliance—across both secular and evangelical contexts—on the progressive unfolding of impersonal machine culture and the circulatory smoothness of a networked society as forces guaranteeing that the shape of social reality would inevitably conform to the wished-for ideal. This dependence, he thinks, entailed haunting; and although he does not connect the dots (and even repudiates causal narrative) he implies that the literal hauntings of spiritualism were at root the realization of the metaphorical haunting he sees in technological society.

I have taken this detour through Modern’s argument partly as an advertisement for a book I admire, partly as a caution about its analytic terms, but also as an invitation to think about the complex relations among secularity (constituting the real in a social imaginary and establishing religion as a category), political secularism (a project for regulating religion so conceived), and various forms of ethical secularism. These are clearly not identical. In fact, they can be contradictory. Political secularism of the liberal kind is defined by its eschewal of normative ethical projects; it presents itself as the procedural neutrality necessary to plural societies but minimizes its claims on the kind of personal affiliation by which it defines religion. The kind of ethical secularism we see in Whitman, on the other hand, eschews that structuring contrast of neutral procedure against personal commitment. It presents itself as a project for becoming the kind of person who can rightly recognize the conditions of existence, and although it is an attempt to overcome Christianity it does not secure its stance as a privileged default against the particularities of religion.

It is probably beyond anyone’s grasp to write a fully satisfying history of secularism in antebellum America, and Modern no doubt wisely emphasized the partial and speculative character of his own project. He has certainly deepened our understanding of the field, and his book illustrates strikingly how rapidly the analysis of secularity is emerging. The more we understand, the more problems we see.

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