Was Antebellum America Secular?

Paul Harvey

Here's some hefty but rewarding reading for your Monday, courtesy of Immanent Frame: Michael Warner, "Was Antebellum America Secular," the best extended reflection I have seen on John Modern's   Secularism in Antebellum America, and a really good introduction to the ongoing current discussion of the very concept of secularism. This one's long enough that it's a good one to print out and persuse at your leisure. A little excerpt:

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. . . .  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.


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