Embattled Majority: Religion and Its Despisers in America (Or: The Long-Lurching Wreck of American Public Life)

I'm psyched to guest post this two-part series from Jason Bivins, well-known to many of you out there for his books and articles, including Fracture of a Good Order (2003) and Religion of Fear (2008), which I reviewed several years ago on the blog here.

The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American PoliticsJason is currently at work on  a couple of projects. One of them, Spirits Rejoice, is about jazz and religion, and we'll have much more about that exciting book down the road. The other project is the one we're featuring for the next couple of days, from a book project entitled Embattled Majority. The work takes (as is characteristic of Bivins's work) an original and compelling look at what one would otherwise assume to be a well- trod topic, religion and the culture wars in contemporary America. I'll let him explain further below.

Part I is today and discusses both current projects and the genesis of the current Embattled Majority book and provides a first-person intellectual autobiography. Part II is tomorrow, and features an extended analysis of our current "embattlements," in which, as he says, we are all engaged. It's our way of celebrating the end of the election season, with all its attendant hyperbole and bluster, with some scholarly analysis that forces us out of our customary ways of thinking into something deeper and more interesting.

Embattled Majority: Religion and Its Despisers in America. (Part I)
Jason C. Bivins

             I’ve been meaning to write some posts for this blog for about three or four years. Having recently spent a fantabulous couple of days with Paul Harvey, and with his kind encouragement, I thought I might write a bit about the state of two lengthy research projects I’m working on. The first one is about jazz, and will be the subject of a subsequent entry. The one I’m writing about here comes from my ongoing enquiry into American political religions. Since a lot of the posts here are first-person and anecdotal, I thought I might write not just about the project’s particulars but about its inception. Here goes. 

            Over the last few years I’ve thought a lot not just about political religions but about my own motivations in writing about them. What does it mean to write about such matters amidst such an absolute, overwhelming abundance of discourse, much of it assuming some form of outrage, David Hume’s “common blaze.” Was there anything more to say about religion and politics in this context? Would academic complexity and nuance, assuming I could conjure them, be noticed at all, matter at all? Would my attempt to write partly in the idiom of social criticism be a risky one in a field often committed to the documentarian position (or what I sometimes think of as the Sunday newspaper magazine mode)? What in fact was I seeking and locating: the emotional experience of religions in political life, a distinct kind of religious expression (that we might clearly distinguish from other kinds), a mode of discourse? 

            My interest has generally been in the latter, with the clear sense that it gives insight into the former. I’m compelled by the notion that the political is, despite being so obvious in American religions, elusive and resistant to conventional descriptive efforts. What I’ve tried to do in my major writings so far, and continue to do in my current work, is to stage theoretical interventions into what is often a dusty discourse, stuffed with enumerations of practitioners and pamphlets and often bereft of suggestions about how to rethink these fundamental tropes and experiences in American life. In these, I’ve tried to excavate and analyze American cultures of religio-political discontent and to propose for my readers new interpretive languages, my own terms for the study of political religions.

In The Fracture of Good Order, I contend that undergirding many Christian criticisms of political order since roughly the Vietnam era is a series of complicated relations with certain fundaments of political liberalism: individualist conceptions of citizenship, a clear separation between the public and private realms, the priority of negative liberty over agonistic participation in public life, and the constraint of certain kinds of speech and action in the realm of the political.
In Religion of Fear, I explore the role of sentimental education in establishing or nurturing religio-political resentments, focusing on the changing shapes of conservative evangelical popular cultures – their shifting articulation, their differing audiences, their socio-political role and foci – in delineating a particular instantiation of a “fear regime” in post-1960s American life. Beyond the admixture of popular culture, fright talk, and conservative evangelical politics, I contend in Fear, we see in the growing normalization of the religious discourse of horror and fright a disturbing parallel to (and energizer of) other trends in American politics: the preponderance of conflict rhetoric and imagery, the creep of apathy and despair, and a vivid sign of the distance between Americans’ aspirations for themselves and what they believe of the world they share. What compelled me was not the snarky, derisive discourse by which some seek to confine evangelicals to a hokey, backwards, reactionary place on the margins of seriousness (however great the numbers, the influence) nor the sensationalist charges of theocracy one hears regularly. I wanted to explore how the popular narrations of a particular brand of religious fear revealed the complexities of religio-political identity, the centrality of the horrific to American self-understandings, and the growing power and ubiquity of combat language, demonology, and an occluded relationship between technology and rationality. So to answer the question “how did such fearful sentiment become normalized,” this chronicle was a possible answer. 

In 2008 I told myself I would concentrate on the jazz book, and I have. But I had to admit to myself that I was a faithless author and was cheating on that book, even before I knew it. That autumn and into 2009, I gave a bunch of talks and started writing for a couple of online forums, and it was in these spaces that I now know I was working out the ideas that now make up this book: the shared and even ubiquitous uses of the discourse of embattlement and victimization; the context of what I call the Techular Swirl, which combines the sense of being emotionally and techonologically overwhelmed with the construction of Wiki Worlds in which “religion” plays a central role; the articulation of embattled identity through what I call “Gotcha!” Epistemology and the Epistemology of Favorites; and the desire to meet the exhaustion of our political moment with a fabulist history in which We Matter, because we know that something called “religion” is embattled or signals our embattlement. So as the long-lurching wreck of American public life has continued to compel me, I realized beginning in late 2010 that I was in fact writing a second book alongside my jazz book.  

            As Fear built on Fracture, this project seeks to account for another dimension of religious agonism in political life in post-Vietnam America. I call it Embattled Majority, which signals my intention to give shape to a third religio-political discourse in the United States: one by which different groups of Americans proclaim their majoritarianism while also performing their victimization, oppression, and persecution. In most of my published work on political religions, I have addressed this discourse – it is more accurate to link it to a religio-political style, than to a movement – but my sense was that its importance to American conservatism (and conservative Christianity, that shifting assemblage of identities lumped together for authorial convenience) deserved a fuller theorization. But now my sense is that it is a critical claim shared far more broadly. It is this darker truth that the book is really about. Nobody escapes.

Part II to follow tomorrow.


Anonymous said…
"proclaim their majoritarianism while also performing their victimization," - love it!!!
Anonymous said…
and for any scholars of contemporary religion and politics, Fracture of Good Order is a must, must read. It totally changed how I think about the liberal-conservative divide (and beyond it)
Curtis J Evans said…
I would concur, Ed. Fracture of Good Order is an exceptional book, bringing together seemingly disparate religious groups from Sojourners to the New Christian Right (and even the Berrigan brothers!) and examining in a rich theoretical framework their varied critique Christian critiques and "perfomances" against liberalism. I loved the sentence: "I had to admit to myself that I was a faithless author and was cheating on my book." I suppose many times we have to make such confessions even when we are not entirely faithless to our book projects, but perhaps more often wandering or roving away from our attachment to them. Case in point: posting on this site when I should be trying to write.

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