Rebirth of a Metaphor

Paul Harvey

In a recent issue of The Nation, Richard White reviews Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation, a new synthesis of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that aims to be for this generation what Robert Wiebe's The Search for Order was for a previous one -- a synthetic text with a guiding metaphor. Lears's image is a religious one: spiritual regeneration. White writes:

Lears wants to swap metaphors: to replace a "search for order" with a "rebirth of a nation" (itself an inversion of the title of D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation). The consequence of Lears's shift of emphasis is clear in his book's opening sentence: "All history is the history of longing." The longing in question--a desire for spiritual, moral and physical regeneration--is deeply Protestant, and it is rooted not only in Protestant patterns of conversion but also in the country's secular saga of self-invention and transformation.

It takes great skill and talent to pull off this kind of sweeping cultural interpretation, and in large part Lears succeeds, but he makes two assumptions that are certain to be challenged. The first is that to understand how the United States changed between 1876 and 1920, it is largely the lives and longings of Protestants that are worth studying. Except as historical extras, there are fewer Catholics and Jews in these pages than at a camp meeting. Not only that but the cast of Protestants is a familiar one, including John Hay, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Ida Wells, Henry Grady (the father of the New South), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Woodrow Wilson, William James and Henry Adams. Lears makes a good case for concentrating on Protestants--a Protestant consensus, he notes, "dominated American politics from the Revolutionary Era into the twentieth century"--but his second assumption is more fundamental and probably more precarious. For Lears, rebirth and regeneration end up being more than metaphors. They are pervasive ways of thinking--habits of mind that shaped the public world of factories, banks, warehouses, battlefields and shop windows. Longing, not capital or political power, is in the saddle, and rides mankind. . . . . .
Regeneration was not exclusively racist, and cataloging its various forms is crucial to Lears's larger project. Everywhere he looks, Lears finds the language of regeneration: in patent medicine advertisements whose testimonials resembled Protestant devotional literature; in the literature of consumption--magazines, advertisements, product descriptions--that promised rejuvenation through the purchase and use of mass-produced goods; in the cult of the self-made man, which intertwined mastery of money and mastery of self. For Lears the search for rebirth and salvation was a constantly evolving phenomenon, yet each new form always seems to replicate the same internal dichotomy, like a new species always replicating a male and female form.

The Protestant center of American history makes a big comeback in this text, as well, a function of a focus on the "longings" of cultural elites and middle-class Americans in the era. American religious historians have been putting that center in the grave for a long time, but in these kinds of synthetic history it rises again.


Tracy said…
I think a lot of us in the field have struggled against the "Face it, America really is Protestant" thesis in the same way and with the same energy that we struggle against the thesis that America really is white.

In both cases we're dealing with an extraordinary powerful myth. It's a story that isn't true. (On which see Andrew Sullivan's "Whose Country?" today at So the impulse to "bury" the Protestant story, as Paul puts it, comes out of the sense that the myth needs to be exposed for what it is, and the diversity that the myth has buried for so long needs to be recovered. On the other hand, extremely powerful stories do extremely powerful things. They have extraordinary social and material effects, which often add up to the cumulative effect that the story--America really is Protestant, or America really is white--is true. And all kinds of evidence can be marshaled in the service of this truth.

For me the important question is, how did this truth-effect happen? That's a question that's going to set a different path of inquiry than the assumption that it simply DID happen (so get used to it), or worse, that the center (Protestant, white) simply IS the center (so get used to that too). I haven't read Lears's book yet. I some ways it sounds as if his reading of that period is close to my own, but I wonder to what degree he takes the Protestant ground of his materials to be inevitable, and whether he really wishes to continue (or revive) a tradition that assumes as much.
Tim said…
In the current debate about whether "America is Protestant" (and it's notable, I think, that it hasn't gone away), the side you take depends on how you conceptualize religion. If you take a religious studies approach that emphasizes "lived experience" and so forth, then you look at the total population and conclude that it obviously is not Protestant. In contrast, if you look at religion as a system of power (as a number of young scholars are doing) then you conclude that America certainly was Protestant (at least during the Gilded Age/Progressive Era) and perhaps still is today in important ways. From this perspective, to deny the Protestant character of America is to obscure the structural advantages (in legal, political, social, cultural, intellectual, and economic contexts) that it has enjoyed from the beginning. It also obscures the ways in which Protestantism has influenced those structures, which in turn gave advantages to its adherents. Following Talal Asad, it posits that even what we think of as "secular" has a religious imprint that favors some groups over others.

I haven't read Lears yet, but in light of his earlier reliance on the secularization narrative in _No Place of Grace_, his switch to a Protestant narrative seems new and significant.

This is not the same "Protestant center" that "religious historians have been the grave." It has more in common with current studies of race, class, and gender than older religious narratives. It produces cutting-edge work like Bethany Moreton's _To Serve God and Wal-Mart_. She traces the complex dialectic between evangelical "servant leadership" and the practices of (and expectations placed on) the largest single workforce in the world. You don't have to be an evangelical to work at Wal-mart, but you need to buy into the construct inspired by evangelical Protestantism to make it there.

I think it is a mistake to dismiss the metaphor too quickly.
Rebecca said…
The synthetic Protestant center will rise again!