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Agency, the Idea of Agency, and the Problem of Mediation in America's God and Secularism in Antebellum America

  • Sonia Hazard

A common faith swept the country. According to Mark Noll's now-famous thesis, early republican and antebellum America was characterized by an ideological synthesis of evangelical religion, republican political theory, and common sense epistemology. Noll calls it “the Protestant consensus.” John Modern largely agrees. In Modern's telling, antebellum America was mired in the same entanglement of piety, politics, and epistemology. But in lieu of the civic language of consensus, Modern describes his formation as an “atmosphere,” a kind of conceptual cloud-hanging so thickly in the air that antebellum Americans inhaled it with every breath. This pervasive atmosphere is what Modern means by “the secular.”

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1 By the 1820s, this republicanism became liberal republicanism, with a stronger emphasis on the individual. Mark A. Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University, 2005), 209–212.

2 For atmosphere, see John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011), 45–46, 113, 117, 255. Whether articulated as “the secular” or “the Protestant consensus,” both Modern and Noll tell stories of a prevailing religious consensus with little sectarian conflict. (Their accounts are also largely white, male, and classless.) These choices seem dissonant in a historiography of antebellum religion in which religious diversity—sometimes articulated in the language of pluralism or democratization—remains the dominant paradigm. Their tendency to emphasize resonance rather than difference is partly attributable to their common emphasis on the constitutive importance of centers of production, privilege, and power. While neither author denies that people on the margins were able to resist or respond to ideological hegemony, both maintain that power mattered. Tracy Fessenden is another major thinker who argues for an expansive form of antebellum protestantism that subsumes denominational distinctions as it infuses political and civic life. For her analysis of “nonspecific Protestantism” see Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2006), 61.

3 Noll, America's God, 95.

4 Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 74, 11.

5 Modern sometimes calls it an “imperial discourse.” Ibid., 12, 73.

6 Ibid., 8, 22n.51, 114, 117.

7 Ibid., 73–74.

8 Modern would resist my equation of “the secular” as an ideology or set of ideas that veils reality. Throughout Secularism in Antebellum America, Modern insists that secular discourses have ontological power. “Secularism . . . cannot be approached as an ideological ruse. It neither deceived nor promulgated inaccurate representations of reality. On the contrary, secularism has been part and parcel to the very constitution of the real. For in supplying both the ground and ingredients of the freedoms enacted in the name of true religion, secularism did not distort reality as much as it provided a particular kind of justification for it.” Ibid., 9.

9 Noll, America's God, 198.

10 Ibid., 200–201.

11 Ibid., 196. Cf. “connecting tissue” in Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 282.

12 Noll, America's God, 196. Cf. Modern's recurrent use of “circulation,” e.g. Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 26–33.

13 In his attention to the material bodies and things that mediate ideas, Noll's work invites conversation with actor-network theory, a body of literature not often embraced by church historians. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University, 2005).

14 Noll, America's God, 189. Modern singles out this line in his critique; see Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 73.

15 See, for example, the section “Protestant Agency” in Noll, America's God, 213–214.

16 Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 112.

17 For “metaphysical solvent,” see ibid., 54, 91. For “feedback,” see ibid., 113–116.

18 Ibid., 113.

19 Modern tells us that whether or not human agency exists “was and remains an open question.” Ibid., 7.

20 In one particularly lush part of the book, ripe for close reading, Modern offers readers a conceptual map of how these atmospheric circulations operate: “[T]he freedoms of the secular age necessarily depend upon how subjects are generated by way of words that loom on the horizon and that have nothing, initially, to do with those subjects. These words possess ontological status. They assume social force in the form of concepts. These concepts, in turn, become instantiated in technics, practices, and words relating to them. And so on and so forth.” To me this map encapsulates the puzzle of Modern's secularism, that when Modern talks about “circulation” he actually means something that is conceptually linear: words become concepts, which later become technics and practices. It is the words and concepts that are primary, anterior to practices and technologies. Ibid., 285.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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