Conceived in Doubt: Guest Post by Jason Bivins on Amanda Porterfield's New Book

I'm delighted today to host a guest post from Jason Bivins, Professor of Religion at North Carolina State. Many of you will be familiar with Jason from his work Religion of Fear, a compelling work of religio-political analysis which I blogged about a few years back (and Jason provided his response to my reflections here). Jason is also an accomplished musician and, as you will see below, a most engaging thinker on new works in the field. One of these days maybe I'll get him to post here more often, but until then, enjoy his thoughts below on a really important new book coming out soon by Amanda Porterfield, which takes a huge swing at many of the established shibboleths of religion in the Early Republic.

Review of Amanda Porterfield. Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

by Jason Bivins

As the non-stop electoral circus struts into 2012 in its pomp, the main acts will inevitably be accompanied by the recrudescence of a Founder fetish. All you need is digital cable to become an expert on the early republic, as now everyone surely is (as well as, of course, an expert on the present). The push and pull will, as ever, consist of efforts to make “the Founders” align with one’s own viewpoint. And as ever, it will remain dead dull and dispiriting.

 Conceived in DoubtOver the last month – as I have read and reread Amanda Porterfield’s superb new book, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation – I have found myself wishing that Porterfield’s intervention could somehow catch the wind this year. Why such a statement? It’s not just that Porterfield’s subtle study of religio-political formations, intellectual virtue, and declension narratives marks a needed contrast to the tide of amateurish history and bloviations about the colonial era – though her text surely does this – but rather that Conceived in Doubt is a fresh inquiry into the emergence of the independent category “religion” in American political life. This is part of a necessary self-inventory not just in the disciplinary sense but in the service of a wider appreciation of the contingent character of the categories which fuel the contemporary outrages that define our politics.

The book begins with a survey of the “cathartic rituals” by which both religious proponents and critics of specific politics developments “tapped into a pervasive sense of self-doubt and mistrust of the world.” Yet this shared sensibility, this suspension of certitude that could become a central democratic virtue, disappears quickly. Porterfield shows how at the turn of the nineteenth century, the absence of self-doubt (and the Protestant anfechtung, at that) necessitated directing mistrust at specific public targets rather than simply at the world of appearances or the reliability of the senses. The sensorial and nearly aesthetic experience of doubt became exteriorized in the early republic, fueling declension narratives and expressions of religio-political discontent which are, as anyone reading this blog knows, the most all-American of all public discourses.

The real story, though, is one that fascinatingly anticipates much that defines our contemporary atmosphere. Porterfield is up to something more subtle and valuable than the simple suggestion that contentious debates – limned by that dusty category “the culture wars” – began earlier than we thought. No, she chronicles how religio-political formations took shape in the effort to stoke, manage, and alleviate doubt. Such efforts “fostered distrust of secular reason and government” to be sure. But Porterfield shows through specific readings on the ground how affective doubt and suspicion were produced and managed, in a study far more resonant than the usual high-altitude accounts of simply secular v. religious.

While conventional political history tends to spool out a typical nineteenth century tale of the democratic masses and party formation, Porterfield not only writes a distinctively different tale but one that specifically contrasts with the very Whiggish character that so often characterizes American religious history. As she puts it, “[a]t a pivotal moment of religious and political formation in the United States, reaction against skepticism from both sides of the political divide secured a privileged place for religion in American society.” It was this dynamic, Porterfield contends, that undergirded so many of the familiar developments during this time period, where the very meanings of “religion” were at stake in reform movements, party formation, social criticism, and the like.

Beginning with a deft study of Thomas Paine’s changing reception, Porterfield elaborates on the links between suspicions of democracy and enthusiasm on the one hand, and debates about public space and the centralization on the other. Public figures like Paine and Trumbell channeled doubt differently, in ways that shaped divergent orientations to these matters of public concern (and a related set of religio-political sensibilities to develop later, as with a kind of nascent economic populism). The emergence of religious reform in northern cities and associational networks in the south were both manifestations of skepticism regarding social order and also bulwarks against skepticism about religion. As an account of the political though, Conceived in Doubt is commendable in looking to sentimental education as well as to public spheres. For example, Porterfield locates these anxieties and shifting authorities in Thompson’s novel Jane Talbot, moral literature serving the purposes of uplift and retroactive character assassination.

These debates – in different locations, fueled by different actors – took shape amidst doubts, recriminations, and fantastic scandals regarding displaced or fallen authority. Knitting them together was the often unarticulated sense that “religion” was now an option and therefore vulnerable, precarious. By contrast, “religion” also became the engine of “partisan mistrust”: the subject of allegation and their idiom as well. Religion thus “concentrated the atmosphere of distrust” that defined early America, a prismatic effect that lingers still. Indeed, one of the richest features of this book is how vividly Porterfield captures these resonances between different eras. She does so most memorably here: “[t]he circular reasoning of political rhetoric only encouraged circular reasoning in religion, with presuppositions about political opponents operating as evidence of their dastardly intentions much as presuppositions about infidelity operated as evidence of immorality.”

At times I found myself wishing for a slightly fuller account of the affective experience of doubt, or perhaps a further exploration of its role in epistemologies of the political. But I also don’t want to be too greedy, since this is such a marvelous historical study of the galvanization of sentiment.


Kelly Baker said…
Thanks, Jason, for an excellent review of Amanda's book. I already wanted to read it, but now, I feel like I must order it immediately!
Ben P said…
Ditto to Kelly. I can't wait for this to come out!