John Lardas Modern, “Secularism in Antebellum America”

Steam engines. Conversions. Inmates. Tracts. Networks. Vibrations. A white whale. Modern’s exciting book on antebellum secularism wends through Moby-Dick, evangelical print culture, spiritualism, phrenology, anthropology, prison reform, and concludes with a brief discussion of “fucking machines.” Secularism in Antebellum America examines the conditions under which certain ideas about “true religion” emerged in America. In keeping with recent developments, this book does not treat secularism as religion’s opposite. Modern primarily uses the term “secularism” to describe a social context, a discourse that connected a diverse array of “religious” activities in the antebellum period. He uses the term to denote “that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense” (7). In this book, secularism is the soil from which particular ideas about religion sprouted, “supplying both the ground and ingredients of the freedoms enacted in the name of true religion” (9). Secularism acts as a “connective tissue” of shared metaphysics, epistemology, and politics that produced good democratic citizens and subjects who thought of themselves as capable of making free religious choices (282). Secularism describes “those formations—social, conceptual, and technical—that enabled a broad Protestant majority, circa 1851, to convince themselves that they were religious” (45). In brief, a specter called secularism haunted religion in antebellum America. Like a ghostly presence, Modern writes, secularism “exceeds our capacity to name it” (10). Secularism united the American Tract Society’s colporteurs with mediums conducting séances, statements about the marvels of steam power with phrenological maps, the disestablished churches of the new republic with the crew of the Pequod. Avoiding systematic argumentation, Modern impressionistically renders a shade.

Half Foucauldian discourse analysis, half Derridean hauntology, and half revisionist religious history (trust me, those numbers add up for this book), Secularism in Antebellum America brings a fresh perspective to a burned-over region in the historiographical record. Contrary to a prevailing narrative about the flowering of “democratized” religious diversity during this period, Modern argues that secularism lurked in everyone’s garden. Secularism offered the attitudes toward technology, structures of affect, and constructions of the subject under which evangelicalism—like spiritualism and phrenology—could emerge. At the same time, secularism itself took shape through evangelical faith in the steam press, the “feedback” of colporteur reports about the population, and the cultivation of particular kinds of reading/voting/converting subjects.

For the disaffected children of the American religious history curriculum, Modern’s book reads like a manifesto. As a title in my doctoral exam list, this book offers a welcome counterpoint to a generation of Geertz-influenced religious historians who trumpeted the agency of religious actors from every hilltop. When people in antebellum America thought they made free religious choices as autonomous agents, Modern contends, secularism had always already conditioned the range of choices, the choosers qua choosers, the choosers’ ideas about what choice meant, the technologies through which choice was thought to operate, etc. Modern’s blistering critique of Mark Noll in the chapter on evangelical secularism stood out in particular. In Noll’s America’s God, Modern charges,

“The play of ideas happens independently from the bodies and contexts those ideas inhabit, that is, from the conditions that mediate those ideas. Noll’s argument, then, is a reception history of evangelical ideals with no critical discussion of reception; a chronicle of the desire for epistemological and political immediacy with no sustained attention to how this desire was mediated; and finally, a rendition of the antebellum public sphere that leaves unquestioned the historical conditions of its possibility.” (73-74)

Amen, amen, my heart feels strangely warmed. Modern’s book invites scholars of evangelical media to move beyond models that focus solely on the self-understandings of religious actors, that scrutinize the winks and feigned-winks and parodied feigned winks of religious media. It encourages imaginative engagement with the kinds of social worlds evangelical media generated and operated within. It begs that we think about the subjective, discursive, affective possibilities new media created and the historical conditions under which particular mediations of religion became possible.

Like most books worth reading, this one has its flaws. Michael Warner recently wrote a beautiful and thorough critique for The Immanent Frame. With the surgically precise analytical rigor folks like me can only hope to possess someday, Warner dissects Modern’s spectral “secularism.” He identifies three kinds of secularism that blur together in Modern’s analysis: 1) secularism as the underlying social/cultural/political conditions that structure religion in modernity identified by Charles Taylor, which he prefers to call “secularity;” 2) secularism as a localized political position, such as the states’ varied interpretations of the disestablishment clause; 3) secularism as an ethical orientation to the world. By failing to distinguish carefully between these, he suggests, Modern’s book creates two major problems. First, it ignores the ways that antagonism and conflict shaped the religious landscape during the antebellum period, instead focusing on shared metaphysics. Second, it folds many—sometimes competing—varieties of secular projects into background secularity, doing particular injustice to the kinds of secularism that are “localizable as projects of governance, ethics, or struggle.” Worse still, says Warner, Modern insists that the secular idea of “disenchantment” was the biggest enchantment of all, but leaves this claim frozen in paradox. Treated as a Derridean ghost, secularism escapes critique and historicization. Warner writes, “When the object of critique is generalized and removed from the space of antagonism, critique itself seems powerless against it; or rather, critique projects from its own powerlessness a problem that cannot be addressed, and before which one can only stand in a vaguely radical appreciation of the tragic.” Stalking ghosts is fun, but it abstracts the object of study to a place beyond critique.

Despite its problems, this is an important book. I suspect that Warner’s forthcoming title will produce a more compelling argument about the contours of secularism in antebellum America, since his work is analytically rigorous and perfectly legible in ways Modern’s text occasionally is not. But I did not read Secularism in Antebellum America just to learn about secularism in antebellum America. This book does something else. Along with the recent work of young scholars like Jason Bivins, Kelly Baker, and Katie Lofton, Modern’s project pries open the fissures in a dominant disciplinary paradigm. It changes the kinds of conversations we can have–will have–in the field of American religious history.