Religion, Literature, and Race

Kelly Baker

H-Amstdy just published two reviews of note for American religious history. Finbarr Curtis reviewed Tracy Fessenden's Culture and Redemption: Religion, The Secular, and American Literature (2007), a book mentioned a time or two on this blog. Curtis examines Fessenden's deft analysis of how the "secular" is deployed and contains religious mooring. He writes:

For many commentaries on American religion and politics, it is an axiom that the line that demarcates the religious from the secular is blurry. Many of these discussions presume that this normative and analytic blurriness comes with the difficulty of attaining neutrality on religious matters. Tracy Fessenden's Culture and Redemption advances a subtle and nuanced set of interpretations of secular tropes in American lit
erature that offers a more complex take on what is at stake in the rhetoric of religious neutrality. In this collection of perceptive and insightful essays on subjects that range from the colonial period to the twentieth century, Fessenden does not propose a new way to clarify the boundaries between religion and the secular. Rather, she considers the institutional and discursive conditions under which it is useful for powerful groups to be able to identify certain beliefs, practices, and forms of identification as religiously neutral. According to Fessenden, the potency of secular rhetoric is that it offers a privileged place from which to affirm public consensus about normative American identity. From this position, "others" may be tolerated, but in such ways as to render their commitments as distinctly religious over and against the neutrality of the mainstream. On this point, Fessenden's work stands within a body of postcolonial scholarship that has taken issue with sociological efforts to measure processes of secularization. From the point of view of postcolonial discursive analysis, the problem with head counts of the religious versus the nonreligious is that line between religiosity and secularity is itself part of the rhetorical game. ... One of the strengths of Fessenden's book is her ability to offer non-reductive interpretations of how secular rhetoric has shaped and been shaped by categories of race, sex, class, and nation. For example, the first two chapters assess the construction of American national identity in light the violent displacement of Native Americans. What interests Fessenden is the Puritan capacity to cast Native Americans as both threatening and irrelevant. The self-evidence of the equation of Puritanism and civilization did not justify violence so much as it made any justification unnecessary. Within a teleological narrative that legitimated Protestant suspicions of decadent religious institutions, middle-class attitudes toward property and work, Anglo-Saxon notions of racial superiority, and child-rearing practices that emphasized discipline and literacy, Puritans wove their religious and cultural ambitions into an American national imaginary.

In later chapters, Fessenden shows how anti-Catholic tropes have shaped American understandings of liberty. This has been especially evident in the way anti-Catholic denunciations of ecclesiastical tyranny have often served as rhetorical models for sexual, racial, and intellectual freedom. On this point, her analysis differs from other genealogies of secularism in that she does not posit an intrinsic secularity to Protestant voluntarism. Rather, Fessenden calls attention to the contested nature of the rhetorical claim that Protestant religiosity provides a neutral standpoint from which to model American liberties. This suggests that Catholic attempts to articulate an American identity were more complex than a simple capitulation to Protestant expectations of religious privacy. According to Fessenden, Catholics were grappling with how to imagine a distinctly Catholic secularity. But as she demonstrates in her chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald, asserting an alternative secular Catholic identity could be fraught with anxiety and self-contradiction.

Curtis also questions her rendering of the secular and ponders what happens to the definition of the secular as unbelief:
In her conclusion, Fessenden suggests that the logic of secularity informs a post-9/11 American foreign policy in which underdevelopment is defined in terms of deprivatized religion. While I find her arguments generally persuasive, it is possible that her impressive facility with interpretive synthesis might begin to pose its own set of problems. Simply put, her interpretation of the secular runs a whole bunch of stuff together. What is the status of the old-fashioned sense of secularism as unbelief? Is there a meaningful difference between an atheist and a conservative Protestant like George W. Bush? This is particularly pressing if secularity is presented as the discursive logic legitimating contemporary American crusades to democratize the world. I think it is an open question whether an excess of secularity or liberalism is really the best way to describe the sources of the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay. After all, to the extent to which Culture and Redemption criticizes current American foreign policy, it does so as an excellent book by a secular liberal for secular liberals. (The entire review is located here.)

Sylvester Johnson reviewed Colin Kidd's The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000. Johnson delves into Kidd's presentation of race and its relationship with scripture as well as Kidd's vindication of the Enlightenment:

After having cleared the ground with this contextualization of modern racial taxonomy, Kidd in the second chapter dives into developing the question that lies at the heart of this book. How was racial discourse related to modern biblical views about human origins? More specifically, did monogenesis, the belief that all humans shared descent from the same ancestors, inhibit or mitigate the acerbic nature of modern racism? Did polygenesis, the mildly popular view that different races derived from different ancestors--promote a more malicious racial consciousness? Forging of Races takes up these questions through a subsequent chronological history of Enlightenment approaches to the Bible.

The third chapter examines ways that European interpretations of Genesis (especially of the Noah legend) were at once narrative templates for making claims about racial ideologies and discursive indicators of European Christian angst over the status of scriptural authority in light of advances in the sciences such as ethnology and early anthropology. Racial categories, Kidd argues, caused Europeans to question the Bible as a reliable and comprehensive source of authoritative knowledge about the empirical world because the Bible did not address the issue of race. With the expansion of European colonialism into the New World, furthermore, early modern writers had to explain why the Bible, which was supposed to be of universal applicability, never mentioned the Americas.

In chapter 4, Kidd defends the Enlightenment against two types of reductionist claims. Against the charge that the Enlightenment was simply racist, Kidd proffers instead that this intellectual movement among Europeans was more complicated, generating racist strategies of representation and also advancing a framework of natural rights whose ethical injunctions pertained innately to all persons. Second, Kidd rejects the secularism thesis, the common conception that the Enlightenment was fundamentally a rejection of religion. It was not; the secularizing strategies derivative of Enlightenment thought were not necessarily opposed to religion but rather enabled non-religious categories for conceiving of and participating in the world of human experience. At times, this might promote religious activity, a pattern that he demonstrates by discussing the growing trend among theologians who drew upon scientific studies of race, when convenient, in order to support the authority of scripture.

Yet, Johnson critiques the author's evaluation to monogenesis and the belief that a narrative of common origins would make people behave more humanely:

Colin Kidd's is an ambitious work. The author promises an assessment of four centuries of discourse about race and scripture. Readers who are looking for a comprehensive history of interpretive strategies, Enlightenment religion, and a rich treatment of primary sources that foregrounds problems of modernity, cosmology, and racial consciousness will be rewarded. The work is not without its problems, however. Critical historians of race and colonialism will find troubling much of Kidd's explanation of the data about biblical interpretation that he so ably catalogues. Ultimately, Kidd's theoretical fluency is strangely inhibited by what at least seems to be a strident commitment to defending the deeply and perversely racist history of Christian monogenesis and the attending monotheism. There can be no honest assessment of monogenesis that concludes it ensures a gentler, milder version of white supremacy vis-� -vis polygenesis.

It is not clear why Kidd thinks that monogenesis necessarily inhibits racism and radical otherness. This is not true for sexism or classism. Why should it hold for racism? Native American and African religions, on the other hand, embraced a worldview comprising polygenesis and polytheism, yet they never produced racial violence on the scale of that by European Christians. Christians who embraced monogenesis, on the other hand, were primary agents in genocidal wars against Africans and Native Americans. The Americas, in fact, were the locus of the largest-scale episode of genocidal human destruction--over 95 percent of American Indians put to death, primarily by explicit execution of colonial and White nation-state policies of slavery, forced removal, and military campaigns of extermination (as opposed to disease, which accounted for a minority of these deaths). Millions of Africans were worked literally to death in the Americas. Where is the empirical basis for arguing that this destruction would have been worse if not for monogenesis? Not once does Forging of Races engage in a serious way the history of genocide that is interstitially instantiated in the history of White Christian colonialism. The closest the book comes to naming this violence is in chapter 3: "Theological orthodoxy and the narratives of sacred history underpinned notions of the family of man and the brotherhood of mankind, however much these notions were disregarded in practice in the imperial rush towards the possession of slaves and the dispossession of indigenous peoples" (p. 78).

It seems that what is decisive for Kidd is the superficial impression that if people believe in common origins, their interactions will be more humane. This assumption ignores the history of encounter between European Christian conquerors in the Americas and their Native and African subjects. It also ignores the analytical studies of scholars such as Itumeleng Mosala, Regina Schwartz, Keith Whitelam, and Jonathan Kirsch, who have demonstrated the linkages between monotheism and violence. What Kidd seems to assume, in other words, is actually a problematic ideal that lacks evidence. One is pressed to ask whether Kidd's theoretical [mis]handling of the history of scripture and race would look different if he had to respond to the material, historical relationship between biblical thinking and physical, psychological, and cultural violence and death that became a necessary part of European Christian colonialism--Itumeleng Mosala has addressed this very problem in his Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (1989). Would Kidd's explanation of primary sources look the same if he included in his interpretive scope the deeply consequential and empirical religious hatred that defined encounters between monotheistic, monogenist Christian colonizers and their polytheistic victims?

Even the Enlightenment heroes--or, rather, especially these heroes--whom he so earnestly defends (his attempt to prove that David Hume and Thomas Jefferson do not deserve to be identified as racists is disappointing and unconvincing) should further prod him to recognize the extent of massive destruction of non-White peoples that is the context for the history of ideas he examines. Does a passionate defense of these victims' putative humanity ever become an imperative for explaining in critical terms "what happened"? Unfortunately, it does not in Forging of Races. Finally, Kidd joins a host of other writers when he incorrectly assumes that Black religious activists and thinkers only respond to Whites instead of also shaping and influencing the larger world of meanings that inform societal norms. Blacks are essentially unmentioned in his history of ideas until the latter chapter on "Black Counter-Theologies." What distinguishes Kidd's study, nevertheless, is not its problems--unfortunately, these are woefully familiar and plague numerous studies of European history and thought--but its strengths. Historians of race, religion, scriptures, and modernity most certainly cannot afford to miss what Kidd has to say; his meticulous research and generous notes will aid serious researchers for years to come. Furthermore, his clear and cogent explanation of race as a social system and his mapping of international relations of scripture and race will prove immensely valuable for teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses. (The full review is located here. The Journal of Southern Religion also hosted a roundtable review.)


Tracy said…
Thanks so much for linking to these reviews, Kelly. Sylverster Johnson’s review of Colin Kidd makes me eager to return to Johnson’s “The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), which, as readers of this blog probably know, won the AAR’s First Book Award in the History of Religions a few years back.

At the risk of appearing churlishly to focus on the criticisms in Finnbar Curtis’s extraordinarily generous and perceptive review of my book, I’d like to respond here, in ascending order, to a few points he makes in his last paragraph. With any luck I’ll have more up at Religion Dispatches in the next few days.

1. “An excellent book by a secular liberal for secular liberals”: well okay, if the other boxes I might have checked are serpent handler, dervish, and Albanian virgin, call me a secular liberal. But to peg this as a book by a secular liberal for other secular liberals seems to be playing fast and loose with just the category that Curtis seems just as keen to hold up for scrutiny as I am. And to decide that I’m writing for other secular liberals is to shortchange some of my best readers.

2. “I think it is an open question whether an excess of secularity or liberalism is really the best way to describe the sources of the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay.” I would say that the question is pretty much closed, actually, and that an excess of secularity or liberalism is not the best way to describe the sources of the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay. But somewhere among the conditions of their possibility lies not an excess of secular liberalism but rather a failure of secular liberals of the Christopher Hitchens variety (e.g. Sam Harris, Ayan Hirsi Ali) to question the long view to which these and other abuses are given as necessities in the short term, or to wonder that their renderings of “Islam” as the type of all religious affronts to freedom so nearly match those of the rapture Christians who await the final defeat of Babylon, and with whom Bush reportedly continues to consult.

3. “What is the status of the old-fashioned sense of secularism as unbelief?” Unbelief in what? Here I’d return Curtis to his elegant point that “the problem with head counts of the religious versus the nonreligious is that line between religiosity and secularity is itself part of the rhetorical game.” Among the reasons I resist identifying as a good old-fashioned unbeliever is that to do so, in my view, is to defer unduly to “belief,” to accede to the point both that belief (and not practice, affect, attachments, etc.) determines one’s status as religious or secular, and that the content and objects of the “belief” one may affirm or reject are no more than self-evident.

4. “Her interpretation of the secular runs a whole bunch of stuff together”: Guilty as charged.
Anonymous said…
We should try and get Curtis to respond to Fessenden here. - Ed