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POLITICAL ATHEISM: THE SECULARIZATION AND LIBERALIZATION OF AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2018

DAVID SEHAT*
Affiliation:
Department of History, Georgia State University E-mail: dsehat@gsu.edu

Abstract

The United States is a deeply Christian country, but over the last sixty years American public culture has become increasingly detached from religious concerns. Christian activists, when not speaking within the Republican Party, have had to assert their privilege in a way that they never had to do in the past. In spite of their efforts, the role of Christianity in culture and politics has seen a more or less continuous decline. This essay examines how and why that process occurred. It puts forward a schematic narrative that relies on the concepts of public reason, the avant-garde, and an overlapping consensus to explain how different people came together in the mid-twentieth century to secularize and liberalize American public life.

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Essays
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018

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References

1 For examples of the first kind of narrative, which feature the inevitability of Protestant Christian decline as the result of an intellectual process characteristic of modernity, see Delbanco, Andrew, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York, 1995)Google Scholar; Carter, Paul A., The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age (Dekalb, 1971)Google Scholar. For examples of the second kind of account, which blame Protestant liberals or just Protestants, see Turner, James, Without God, without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore, 1985)Google Scholar; Gregory, Brad S., The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Hutchison, William R., Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven, 2003)Google Scholar.

3 Ibid., 6.

4 Ibid., 4–5 (first quotation), 10 (fourth and fifth quotations), 170 (second quotation), 221 (third quotation).

5 Smith, Christian, ed. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (Berkeley, 2003), 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar (first through fourth quotations), 2 (fifth and sixth quotations).

6 Ibid., 28.

7 Hollinger, David A., “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” in Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism and Modern American History (Princeton, 2013), 18–55, at 48Google Scholar.

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12 Hollinger, “Jewish Intellectuals,” 18 (first quotation); David A. Hollinger, “Two NYUs and ‘The Obligation of Universities to the Social Order’ in the Great Depression,” in Hollinger Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, 60–79, at 69 (second quotation).

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15 Hollinger, “Accommodation of Protestant Christianity,” 14 (first quotation); Hollinger, “After Cloven Tongues,” 48 (second quotation).

16 Hollinger, Protestants Abroad, 298. Hollinger theorizes this focus on knowledge in “Christianity and Its American Fate,” 296–98.

17 For two foundational treatments of the theory of the avant-garde see Poggioli, Renato, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Fitzgerald, Gerald (Cambridge, MA, 1981)Google Scholar; Bürger, Peter, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Shaw, Michael (Minneapolis, 1984)Google Scholar. For an excellent general introduction see Cottington, David, The Avant-Garde: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Many treatments of the avant-garde think of it as a movement primarily concerned with art. I am using it more loosely, in keeping with what Dorothy Ross and others have shown to be the connections between aesthetic modernism and cognitive modernism. See Ross, Dorothy, “Modernism Reconsidered,” in Ross, ed., Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, 1870–1930 (Baltimore, 1994), 13Google Scholar, 8. I use the locutions of “mainstreaming help” and “popularizers” to avoid the more pejorative term “middlebrow.” On the middlebrow see Shelley Rubin, Joan, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill, 1992)Google Scholar.

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22 Friedrich Gundolf quoted by Milton Himmelfarb, The Jews of Modernity (New York, 1973), 44.

23 Cuddihy, Ordeal of Civility; Ross, Modernist Impulses. On the struggle in the European, and especially German, context between secularists and their religious opponents see Weir, Todd H., Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession (New York, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Walser Smith, Helmut, ed., Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in Germany, 1800–1914 (Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar; Clark, Christopher and Kaiser, Wolfram, eds., Culture Wars: Secular–Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Lilla, Mark, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York, 2007)Google Scholar.

24 Ross, “Modernism Reconsidered,” 8; Hutchison, William R., ed., Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900–1960 (New York, 1989)Google Scholar. On the commanding position of Protestants in American society see Sehat, David, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, updated edn (New York, 2015), 51180Google Scholar.

25 On the Social Gospel and social science see Haskell, Emergence of Professional Social Science, 48–143; Luker, Ralph E., The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill, 1991)Google Scholar; Dorrien, Gary, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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27 Gladden, Washington, Applied Christianity: Moral Aspects of Social Questions (Boston, 1886), 215Google Scholar. Other quotations can be found in Mislin, David, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Ithaca, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 4. On the increased secularity of the new, social-scientific disciplines, see Sehat, Myth of American Religious Freedom, 193–98.

28 See Chaves, Mark, “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority,” Social Forces 72/3 (March 1994), 749–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Mislin, Saving Faith, 33–38; Matthew S. Hedstrom, “Reading across the Divide of Faith: Liberal Protestant Book Culture and Interfaith Encounters in Print, 1921–1948,” in Schmidt and Promey, American Religious Liberalism, 207–27, at 222; Taves, Ann, Fits, Visions, Trances: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Difference from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999), 253–307Google Scholar.

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31 Sehat, David, “A Mainline Moment: The American Protestant Establishment Revisited,” Modern Intellectual History 11/3 (2014), 735–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 740–41.

32 Leigh E. Schmidt, “The Parameters and Problematics of American Religious Liberalism,” in Schmidt and Promey, American Religious Liberalism, 1–14, at 7; Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America, 111–38. See also Schmidt, Leigh E., Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, 2nd. edn (Berkeley, 2012)Google Scholar.

33 Mislin, Saving Faith, 77–78; Sehat, Myth of American Religious Freedom, 155–68; McGreevy, John T., Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York, 2003), 91150Google Scholar.

34 Yaakov Ariel, “Jewish Liberalism through Comparative Lenses: Reform Judaism and Its Liberal Christian Counterparts,” in Schmidt and Promey, American Religious Liberalism, 270–90; David Mislin, Saving Faith, 63–89.

35 Hollinger, “After Cloven Tongues,” 18–55.

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38 Woodson, Carter G., The History of the Negro Church, 2nd edn (Washington, DC, 1921), 247265Google Scholar, at 255. On the non-white contribution to cosmopolitanism, see Slate, Nico, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Menand, Louis, The Metaphysical Club (New York, 2001), 388408Google Scholar. On the anti-Christian and freethought orientation of many prominent black intellectuals see Cameron, Christopher, “Zora Neale Hurston, Freethought, and African American Religion,” Journal of Africana Religions 4/2 (2016), 236244CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Douglas, Ann, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York, 1995)Google Scholar, 6; Horace M. Kallen, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” The Nation, 18 Feb. 1915, 190–94, 25 Feb. 1915, 217–20; Bourne, Randolph, “Trans-national America,” Atlantic Monthly 118/2591 (July 1916), 8697Google Scholar; Alain Locke, Race Contacts and Interracial Relations, quoted in Louis Menand, Metaphysical Club, 398.

40 On the fundamentalist–modernist controversy see Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism in American Culture, 2nd edn (New York, 2006)Google Scholar.

41 On anti-Protestant dissenters’ largely ineffectual attempts to establish civil liberties in law see Rabban, David M., Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years (New York, 1997)Google Scholar; Eric Schmidt, Leigh, Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman (New York, 2010)Google Scholar. On the development of civil liberties law in the 1920s and thereafter see Johnson, Donald, The Challenge to American Freedoms: World War I and the Rise of the American Civil Liberties Union (Lexington, 1963), 125–48Google Scholar; Cortner, Richard C., The Supreme Court and the Second Bill of Rights: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Nationalization of Civil Liberties (Madison, 1981), 311Google Scholar, 38–62. For a wider consideration on the role of law as a site of religious contestation see Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom; Fallers Sullivan, Winnifred, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, new edn (Princeton, 2011)Google Scholar; Wenger, Tisa, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wenger, Tisa, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of a Founding Ideal (Chapel Hill, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barringer Gordon, Sarah, Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Cambridge, 2010)Google Scholar.

42 Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review 4/5 (Dec. 1890), 193–220, at 193.

43 On the role of Protestant separatists see Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, “Reinventing Civil Liberties: Religious Groups, Organized Litigation, and the Rights Revolution” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Emory University, 2011).

44 United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938), 304 U.S. 144 (1938) at 152 note 4.

45 Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940) at 310.

46 Everson v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 1 (1947). On Black's Baptist background see Kruse, Kevin M., One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York, 2015)Google Scholar, 180.

47 Eisenhower's speech is printed in the New York Times, 23 Dec. 1952, 1, 16, at 16. On the Catholic and liberal Protestant concerns about secularism, see K. Healan Gaston, “Demarcating Democracy: Liberal Catholics, Protestants, and the Discourse of Secularism,” in Schmidt and Promey, American Religious Liberalism, 337–58, esp. 343–7, 351–4.

48 For an exhaustive account of intellectuals in these years see Pells, Richard H., The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s (New York, 1985)Google Scholar. Some of these Jewish intellectuals would later become neoconservatives, resisting the cultural forces that they had championed in an earlier era. But their later positions do not change their earlier role. On the neoconservatives see Hartman, Andrew, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago, 2015), 3869CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967); Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969).

50 Munger, Theodore, The Freedom of Faith (Boston, 1883), 24Google Scholar. For a particularly detailed account of liberal Protestants’ embrace of the secularist opinions of the Court see Kruse, One Nation under God, 165–201. On ecumenicals’ sustained attention to outsider perspectives see Hedstrom, Matthew S., The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2013)Google Scholar.

51 Hollinger puts a particularly fine point on the issue of religious authority in his essay “Christianity and Its American Fate,” 280–303.

52 See Rawls, John, Political Liberalism, expanded edn (New York, 2005)Google Scholar. In much the same way that Rawls's 1971 book A Theory of Justice can be seen as a belated attempt to shore up the presumptions of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state, just as those presumptions were crumbling, so his work on the overlapping consensus and public reason might be seen as the theorization of a political arrangement as that arrangement went into eclipse. For an interpretation of Theory of Justice along these lines see O'Connor, Mike, A Commercial Republic: America's Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism (Lawrence, 2014), 163200Google Scholar. For a trenchant discussion of Rawls's Political Liberalism that acknowledges it as a response to the American situation see Peter E. Gordon, “Religion within the Bounds of Democracy Alone: Habermas, Rawls, and the Transatlantic Debate over Public Reason,” in Isaac et al., Worlds of American Intellectual History, 257–279, esp. 276.

53 Hollinger, “After Cloven Tongues,” 36.

54 Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 1–7. See also, Worthen, olly, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York, 2014)Google Scholar.

55 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA, 2007), 506Google Scholar (first quotation), 376 (second quotation); Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, 2003)Google Scholar; Mahmood, Saba, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fessenden, Tracy, Culture and Redemption: Religion, Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, 2007)Google Scholar; Carter, Stephen L., The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York, 1993)Google Scholar; Marsden, George, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York, 2014)Google Scholar. For a very helpful analysis of these overlapping trends see Jacques Berlinerblau, “The Crisis in Secular Studies,” Chronicle Review, 8 Sept. 2014, at www.chronicle.com/article/The-Crisis-in-Secular-Studies/148599.

56 See especially Fessenden, Culture and Redemption.

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