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POLITICAL ATHEISM: THE SECULARIZATION AND LIBERALIZATION OF AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE

  • DAVID SEHAT (a1)
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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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); Carter, Paul A., The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age (Dekalb, 1971). 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); Gregory, Brad S., The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA, 2012).

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

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), 1 (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 48 .

8 David A. Hollinger, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted,” in Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire, 1–17, at 6.

9 Hollinger, David A., “Ethnic Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and the Emergence of the American Liberal Intelligentsia,” in Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington, 1985), 5673.

10 Ibid., 57; Hollinger, David A., “Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century,” in Hollinger, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History (Princeton, 1996), 1741 ; Hollinger, “Cultural Relativism,” in Hollinger, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity: Studies in Ethnoracial, Religious, and Professional Affiliation in the United States (Madison, 2006), 166–84.

11 David A. Hollinger, “Rich, Powerful, and Smart: Jewish Overrepresentation Should Be Explained Instead of Avoided or Mystified,” in Hollinger, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity, 154–65, at 154 (first quotation); Hollinger, “Jewish Intellectuals,” 17 (third quotation), 24 (second quotation); Hollinger, “Christianity and Its American Fate: Where History Interrogates Secularization Theory,” in Isaac, Joel, Kloppenberg, James T., O'Brien, Michael, and Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer, eds., The Worlds of American Intellectual History (New York, 2017), 280–303, at 297 (fourth quotation).

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).

13 Hollinger, David A., “Religious Liberalism and Ecumenical Self-Interrogation,” in Schmidt, Leigh E. and Promey, Sally M., eds., American Religious Liberalism (Bloomington, 2012), 374–87.

14 Hollinger, David A., Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton, 2017), xi (first quotation); Hollinger, “Accommodation of Protestant Christianity,” 11 (second and third quotations).

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); Bürger, Peter, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Shaw, Michael (Minneapolis, 1984). For an excellent general introduction see Cottington, David, The Avant-Garde: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013).

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), 13 , 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).

19 Slezkine, Yuri, The Jewish Century (Princeton, 2004); Marx, Karl, “On the Jewish Question,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edn, ed. Tucker, Robert C. (New York, 1978), 2652 .

20 Slezkine, Jewish Century, 63. See also Murray Cuddihy, John, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (New York, 1974), 813 .

21 Haskell, Thomas L., The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (Urbana, 1977), 3947 . On the connection between modernization and modernism, see Berman, Marshall, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York, 1988), 87129 . Others have seen a disjunction between aesthetic modernism and modernization, in which modernist critics and writers used then-current ideas of modernization (understood, usually, as the growth of liberal capitalism and mass production) as a foil for their own political visions of the future. See Ross, Dorothy, “Modernities, Past and Present,” American Historical Review 116/3 (June 2011), 702–14.

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); Walser Smith, Helmut, ed., Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in Germany, 1800–1914 (Oxford, 2001); Clark, Christopher and Kaiser, Wolfram, eds., Culture Wars: Secular–Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York, 2003), Lilla, Mark, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York, 2007).

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). On the commanding position of Protestants in American society see Sehat, David, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, updated edn (New York, 2015), 51180 .

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); Dorrien, Gary, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, 2015).

26 Lester Frank Ward, “The Situation,” Iconoclast, 15 March 1870, 2; Small, Albion, “The Era of Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 1 (July 1895), 1–15, at 15 ; Holt, Thomas C., “The Political Uses of Alienation: W. E. B. Du Bois on Politics, Race, and Culture, 1903–1940,” American Quarterly 42/2 (June 1990), 301–23; Dorothy Ross, “Modernist Social Science in the Land of the New/Old,” in Ross, ed., Modernist Impulses, 182–89, at 183. On the wider scientific movement away from a shared Protestant worldview or culture see Jewett, Andrew, Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War (New York, 2012).

27 Gladden, Washington, Applied Christianity: Moral Aspects of Social Questions (Boston, 1886), 215 . 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), 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), 749–74.

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), 253–307.

30 Wacker, Grant, “The Demise of Biblical Civilization,” in Hatch, Nathan O. and Noll, Mark A., eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York, 1982), 121–38; Mislin, Saving Faith, 14–33.

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

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), 91150 .

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.

36 Beecher, Lyman, Lectures on Political Atheism and Kindred Subjects (Boston, 1852).

37 Weyl, Walter E., The New Democracy: An Essay on Certain Political and Economic Tendencies in the United States (New York, 1912), 1; Lippmann, Walter, A Preface to Politics (New York, 1913). On the American bohemians see Stansell, Christine, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (Princeton, 2010); Jacoby, Russell, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York, 1987), 2740 . On the role of Jews in spreading psychology see Heinze, Andrew R., Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2004).

38 Woodson, Carter G., The History of the Negro Church, 2nd edn (Washington, DC, 1921), 247265 , 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); Menand, Louis, The Metaphysical Club (New York, 2001), 388408 . 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), 236244 .

39 Douglas, Ann, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York, 1995), 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), 8697 ; 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).

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); Eric Schmidt, Leigh, Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman (New York, 2010). 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), 125–48; Cortner, Richard C., The Supreme Court and the Second Bill of Rights: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Nationalization of Civil Liberties (Madison, 1981), 311 , 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); Wenger, Tisa, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill, 2009); Wenger, Tisa, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of a Founding Ideal (Chapel Hill, 2017); Barringer Gordon, Sarah, Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Cambridge, 2010).

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), 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). 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), 3869 .

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), 24. 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).

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). 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), 163200 . 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).

55 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA, 2007), 506 (first quotation), 376 (second quotation); Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, 2003); Mahmood, Saba, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton, 2016); Fessenden, Tracy, Culture and Redemption: Religion, Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, 2007); Carter, Stephen L., The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York, 1993); Marsden, George, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York, 2014). 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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Modern Intellectual History
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