Modern Summer of Love: On Secularism in Antebellum America, Part I of VI. Chad Seales Responds

For our responses to Secularism in Antebellum America, first given at the American Academy of Religion last year, our leadoff hitter is Chad Seales, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He will lay down the bunt single to get the run-scoring-machine started. Then beginning tomorrow we will each day post responses to each subsequent chapter of the book. 2nd at bat will be Finbarr Curtis (Georgia Southern University); then, Chip Callahan (University of Missouri). Cleaning up the bases will be Katie Lofton (Yale University and one of the first contributing editors of this blog); and finally, Paul Johnson (University of Michigan) will follow with the inside-the-park-home run. We will conclude with reflections from John Modern of Franklin and Marshall College, and the blog

As Amy Koehlinger just explained in her post earlier today introducing the series, the responses are posted in deliberate order, as each respondent takes on one particular chapter of the work. 

A Hint of Irony:
Evangelical Secularism 
The Picture Alphabet in Prose and Verse (New York: American Tract Society, n.d.)
What is evangelical about evangelical secularism?  This is my question for John.

I ask because the author writes of the difference between falsehood and irony:

For at the end of the day, evangelical secularism was anathema to evangelical understandings of how the world was in essence.  To be clear, this is not to accuse mid-century evangelicals of false consciousness.  I do, however, want to stress the ironies of evangelical practice, that is, how their flight from the mediating grasp of subjective bias and political institutions generated something like the imperial discourse of secularism – the atmosphere in and through which they recognized and conducted themselves as evangelicals.  And although evangelicals were not the only Americans who breathed in this atmosphere or dispersed it through their actions, they did develop a convincing ontology that made the recognition of secularism an unreasonable proposition.  The mediations of secularism, however, were as pervasive as they were incomprehensible (117). 

Evangelical secularism was anathema to evangelical understandings.  But, John argues in other parts of this chapter, evangelicals used secularism.  They used it with an “agenda,” and they used it as a “maneuver” (70).  They intended to use it to “reproduce religious life.”  And by John’s account, they succeeded.  But, I assume, they did not necessarily reproduce their religious life.  They formatted the conversation – all conversations – about (true) religion. 

And the mechanism of their particular making unmade them in the generalities of its universalism.  That which they possessed was no longer their possession.   Yet, this unintentional unmaking was not a function of false consciousness.  “At the end of the day,” evangelical intent was not misguided and evangelical self-consciousness of that intent was not false, despite the venial affect.  It was, instead, ironic.  Distinguishing falsehood from irony, John signals his disinterest in the faulty faculties of mental states and announces against that dismissal the intrigue of his subject: the discursive practice of their knowledge production, or what he calls evangelical secularism.

But he also writes this: 

Indeed, the very name, “secularism,” may be too specific, too precise an analytical category to encompass the affective and effective qualities of modernity.  America’s God was, perhaps, more god-like than antebellum evangelicals or even contemporary historians have acknowledged. Or to quote Emile Durkheim on the difficulties involved in such acknowledgement, Durkheim the student of so-called primitive ritual: “To know what the conceptions that we ourselves have not made are made of, it cannot be enough to consult our own consciousness.” (117)

With this last sentence we reach the end of the chapter.  And we end with Durkheim.  But we end without explanation.  We the reader are left to infer that Durkheim is right.  Or is he?  Because he studies “so-called” things.  And wasn’t, isn’t, secularism a so-called something.  Now I am unsure.

Which of the author’s categories are “so-called” and which are not?  Which are his categories?  And which are his interlocutor’s categories?  And which are his subject’s categories?  At any given moment in the text the category may be all of these things and none of these things.

I have read the chapter entitled “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan.”  And I have read the book entitled “Secularism in Antebellum America” of which this chapter is but a part.  And I cannot tell you what it means and I cannot summarize its argument for you.  All I can say is that the more I write about it the more frequently my sentences begin with “And.”  And I have deleted much of what I have written.  And I do not know what that means.  Because I find what I write, more so than what I read, utterly, entirely, incomprehensible.

And I ask myself why is this the case.  I like this book. I like its anti-systematic thinking.  And I like its provocative phrasing.  And I even, when in a good mood, like its infinite regression of terms.  But at the end of the day, I admit that I am a land lover.  When the sun sets, I prefer to find a port.  Give me territory.  Bound the endless horizon.  Because I have yet to find my sea legs.   

See, this is what happens.  Whenever I write about this book I lose sight.  And now I have lost my referent.  So I will begin again. 

The word “irony” is not in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; at least not in any of its English translations.  Yet, John tells his reader to go and see Max Weber, should they want to know more about “the irony of Protestant faith becoming a mediating formation whose presence goes largely unacknowledged” (84).

The Talking Bible (Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union , 1851),
And in these moments, I lose faith in the captain.   And to regain my faith, I try to think like Kierkegaard and say to myself, “The author is always right and I am always wrong.”  But the collective incomprehensibility!  I am uncertain the difference between modernity and God and between the metaphysics of secularism and historical theology.

I consulted Max, and as I reported, he said nothing of irony.  So why should I believe there is something when there is not.  John speaks of irony, and he may believe that Weber speaks of it as well, though he does not need to believe, because he is the belief.  But, at the end of the day, Weber did not, and maybe that is the irony.  It is John who speaks for Weber.  But of course we all do this when we interpret, when we appropriate a text.  But like good Protestants, we all can read the Ethic and check for ourselves.  But by what measure do we have to check our author?  Because only he, it seems, has access to the script. 

That is not true, exactly, though it is not false either.  I did consult tract 123 of the American Tract Society, and I did not need to leave the text to consult it.  It already was there, in the paragraph preceding the one in which John explains that, ‘“True religion” in this scheme was wholly secular; false religion a perversion of the epistemological and political order of things.”  But the preceding tract citation, the one that demonstrates “this scheme,” does not mention “secular.”  Rather, its key word is “public.”  It states that “the irresistible certainty of the Christian Religion” could be “performed publicly” and there be “public monuments and actions kept in memory of it.”  So is public another word for secular?  I say this, I ask this, because only he, John, can speak the name.  Not even those who helped make it, antebellum evangelicals, can recognize it.

And would any evangelical today recognize them?  So who or what do we consult outside this text that is not already inside its argument?   If secularism does not exist “at the level of empirical reality,” just as irony does not exist as a word in Weber’s text, but exists only in the consciousness of the author, in his interpretation of another author’s imply, and if the promise of the footnote to offer the reader an external connection to that interpretation and its shared consciousness is left unfulfilled, as Durkheim is at the end of this chapter left unexplained, then why should I, should we, believe him when he speaks?  By what measure do we have other than Leviathan? 

Let me begin again.  Here are four selections of the word irony in John’s text:
“Alexis de Tocqueville noted the irony of how Americans set piety apart from the political even as their piety assumed a rather aggressive political agenda and yielded all number of political effects” (18).

The aforementioned note on Weber (84).

“But this is often the irony of institutions whose success depends more on generating semiotic fields than in successfully fulfilling the promise of their propaganda.  The ATS, then, reproduced the categories by which true religion was understood” (100).

“Beaumont and Tocqueville wrote, with a hint of irony, that the powerful cure enacted within penitentiaries had itself become contagious.  Many Americans, they believed, had come to “occupy themselves continually with prisons” and had “caught the monomania of the penitentiary system, which to them seems the remedy for all the evils in society.”  In other words, the increasing valorization of instrumental rationality among reformers did not necessarily result in a more rational political order” (254)

In three of these selections, the author uses the word irony to describe another author’s intent.  In only one, does the author use it to describe a subject, an institution, the American Tract Society.  And even in that instance he does not, at least explicitly, use it to interpret, define, or describe a practice, which is what he said he wanted to stress, “the ironies of evangelical practice.”

The Senses; with numerous illustrations
(Boston: American Tract Society, 1872), 19.
In all four of the above instances, the author instead uses the word irony to describe a mechanism or a procedure: which is a decoupling of cause and effect; a disconnection between professed intent and its opposite outcome.  This I think I understand.  But I still want to know in each case, which subject, which something, other than our author, was aware of the irony that the subject or something practiced?  Maybe Weber knew or Tocqueville knew? 

Maybe they were aware.  Evangelicals, though, were they self-aware?  Were they intentional in their ironic “maneuvers” of secularism?  Or were they mere innocents at sunrise and starkly disillusioned by sunset?  When did their day end, when did the time come when their secularism became anathema to their understanding?  Was it in the nineteenth century or some time later?  And if evangelicals were not self-aware, if they knew not what they did, then who did know or who knows now?  Who has knowledge of their knowledge?  If it is our author alone that can discern the irony, then the story of American evangelicalism is filled with the dramatic irony of Greek tragedy where “the incongruity [is] created when the (tragic) significance of a character’s speech or actions is revealed to the audience but unknown to the character concerned” (OED).  And if Durkheim is right, and we know he cannot be wrong, if the individual is a microcosm of society, then an audience of one is all you need.

That is, I suspect, the unstated argument of this book.  And if it is not, I still entertain the assumption.  Whales be damned!  Why?  Because the distance between theological enterprise and categorical alchemy is roughly the distance between religion and secularism.  This is what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History: “Individuals do, of course, have a degree of transcendence over the vicissitudes of their nations and communities, no matter how intimately they are involved in them.  They may, therefore, be individual observers of an ironic situation in which they are collectively involved” (1952: 154).  And this is what John writes: “Melville’s subject mater, among other things, was the dense and complex practices in which individuals learn to know what not to know.”  So is this the difference between religion and secularism, between knowing and unknowing?  And if our author knows, then is he not religious if he is not making religion?

“Pure tragedy,” said Niebuhr, “elicits tears of admiration and pity for the hero who is willing to brave death or incur guilt for the sake of some great good.  Irony  however prompts some laughter and a nod of comprehension beyond the laughter; for irony involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood” (84).

What is the story of evangelical secularism?  Is it pure tragedy?  Or is there just enough irony, just enough comic absurdity, just enough comprehension of the incomprehensible…?

What is evangelical about evangelical secularism?  This is my question for John.

Works Cited
Modern, John Lardas. Secularism in Antebellum America. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1952] 2008, 154.

Oxford English Dictionary. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge, [1905] 1987.


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