A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Category: Religion/media

A Fundamentalist Temperance Song

Homer Rodeheaver served as song leader for the famous fundamentalist revivalist Billy Sunday. “Rody,” as friends called him, was one of the first people ever to record gospel music. Believe it or not, this was once controversial behavior for a Christian musician. The Library of Congress lists his 1916 Victor recording “Molly and the Baby, Don’t You Know?” in a catalogue of temperance songs. Their description states it “is a song of a father promising not to drink for the sake of his wife and child.” Certainly, temperance crusaders like Sunday and Rodeheaver saw liquor as a threat to family stability–hence the overt message of the song. But to students of American religious history, the song’s religious undertones are unmistakable. “Molly and the baby” is a play on Mary and Jesus. Giving up liquor wasn’t just about being a responsible husband and father, but also about being a good Christian. The success of prohibition laws proved the broad appeal of fundamentalism’s unique style of religion in the 1910s and 20s.

Hoover and Kaneva, “Fundamentalisms and the Media” (2009)

Essays from: Stewart Hoover and Nadia Kaneva, eds. Fundamentalisms and the Media. (Continuum, 2009).

  • R. Scott Appleby, “What Can Peacebuilders Learn from Fundamentalists?”
  • Susan A. Maurer, “A Historical Overview of American Christian Fundamentalism in the Twentieth Century.”
  • Robert Glenn Howard, “The Vernacular Ideology of Christian Fundamentalism on the World Wide Web.”
  • J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “African Traditional Religion, Pentecostalism, and the Clash of Spiritualities in Ghana.”
  • Jin Kyu Park, “Discursive Construction of Shamanism and Christian Fundamentalism in Korean Popular Culture.”
  • Pradip N. Thomas, “Christian Fundamentalism and the Media in India.”

Pulling together a broad range of scholarship, this path-breaking collection of essays insists that it is impossible to understand fundamentalisms “without reference to the media” (3). Taking the Protestant fundamentalism of the 1920s as the prototypical case of fundamentalism, the editors declare that all fundamentalisms emerged in the age of mass media. More than that, media have been essential in shaping and reshaping fundamentalisms over time, intricately bound up with the evolution of these modern religious movements. Fundamentalists have proven experts at using media to disseminate their messages, but media themselves have also helped to found and shape fundamentalisms. Among other things, media can “represent, define, construct, and symbolize” fundamentalisms (5). Media offer tools for creating and disseminating meaning, and they are also contexts “within which competing sets of symbols are proposed, promoted, circulated, and consumed” (13). Influenced by the theories of Foucault and Bourdieu, the editors suggest that scholarship must look beyond instrumentalist models of media, taking seriously how various practices of media interact with fundamentalisms. When defining “media,” they argue we must keep five issues in mind: a) reflexivity, i.e. the self-consciousness and autonomy of today’s social actors; b) the eroding boundary between public and private in our media age; c) the proliferation of media producers and the move away from passive audiences; d) the largely visual and symbolic character of “the media,” which many see as particularly amenable to fundamentalist aims; e) media construct an autonomous social and political sphere of authority, which erodes traditional religious authorities (14-15). Focusing on such questions, this collection makes a valuable contribution to an emerging field.

But reading this collection after spending yesterday with Latour may have spoiled my appreciation of it. Given the lofty—indeed, often admirable—theoretical aims outlined in the introduction, the essays themselves surprised me in several ways. The good surprises. The essays I found most helpful all stood under the “Locations” heading and concerned “fundamentalisms” in non-western contexts. Asamoah-Gyadu, Park, and Thomas each pushed the usual boundaries of conversations about fundamentalism in useful ways, examining traditional Ghanaian religions, Korean shamanism, and Indian Protestantism respectively. Thomas, for example, demonstrates how a “fundamentalist” style of Protestantism gets circulated and constructed in India through people’s interactions with audio recordings, videos, posters, consumer goods, and urban space in Chennai. Though not flawless—many betray anti-fundamentalist leanings—these essays challenge common assumptions about what fundamentalism can be, where it can happen, and how it works.

Now to the disappointing surprises. I won’t say anything here about my problems with the project of comparing fundamentalisms, because I’ve already posted on that. I have another beef. Frequently, contributors refer to “the media”—as in the title. This term lent itself to a slippage between singular and plural, where “the media” sometimes required is and sometimes are in the same essay. In the introduction, I found this formulation somewhat clever, but elsewhere it was just confusing. Referring to “the media” in the plural invites readers to consider the distinct roles of particular media in particular fundamentalisms; referring to “the media” in the singular invokes a spectral force, one usually thought to be comprised of network television news, daily newspapers, and most Hollywood movies. For someone like Jerry Falwell, “the media” was precisely this sort of singular, spiritual entity—it corrupts, leads youth astray, causes sin, etc. Since he clearly offers a critique of Falwellian fundamentalism, I found it odd that Appleby’s essay used the term in roughly the same way, without comment—though presumably stripped of all its force as a spiritual agent (see 33). I’m splitting hairs, but I think they’re important ones that signal our scholarly approaches. If we’re going to talk about “the media” as an entity (or an actor), we had best explain how “it” lives in a particular community, what “it” can/can’t do, how people treat “it,” etc. If we’re going to talk about media as plural, we had better slow down and trace their each one’s functions, operations, actions, possibilities in a particular community. In the 1930s, daily newspapers and Hollywood films had very different roles, effects, powers, and possibilities in many American Protestant fundamentalist circles. We can’t gloss over those differences with a term like “the media.”

Review by A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Press, 1999).

Review by A.T. Coates

Gutjahr’s groundbreaking work An American Bible examines the Bible’s history as an American book. That is, Gutjahr illuminates the Bible’s changing role in 19th-century American print culture by focusing on its qualities qua book—especially how its changing contents and packaging changed its role in American life. While once the good book stood at the center of American print culture, by the 1880s Americans had become a people of the good books. The mass-production of cheap scriptures, proliferating “accurate” translations, ornately illustrated commoditized Bibles, “life of Jesus” adaptations, and non-biblical school textbooks dislodged the Bible from its once-dominant position. The Bible’s cultural role changed as its material qualities as a book changed.

Chapter 2, which traces the history of Bible illustration, offers the most interesting arguments for students of visual or material culture. As the century progressed, publishers seemed to add more and more detailed illustrations to larger and larger Bibles. Commercial concerns mingled with sentimentalist education strategies, the Common Sense philosophical impulse to verify the Bible’s stories led publishers to include maps, charts, and detailed (even fanciful) pictures that would bring interpretive insight. Publishers claimed that their illustrations helped readers interpret the Bible more accurately, which brought the convenient side effect of higher sales.

 

Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” and “What is Iconoclash?”

Latour seems to be having a moment in religious studies right now. It is easy to see why: for Latour, religion constitutes a central element of modernity. Fetish… factish. Scientific “facts” behave suspiciously like the “fetishes” of so-called primitive religion—the truth inhabits the scientist’s microscope like the god speaks through the shaman’s mask. Latour takes the modern anthropological tools that have limned the boundaries of “religion” and turns them back on modernity itself. We accuse others of merely “believing” in gods they have made with their own hands, and yet insist that scientific facts descend unmediated into our minds, that they inhabit our apparatuses, that things must either be products of human labor (thus artificial) or completely untouched by human hands (thus true/genuine). “A Modern,” writes Latour, “is someone who believes that others believe” (42). The notion of “belief” allows Moderns to distinguish between those who are naïve and don’t know the god they believe in has been fabricated; those who are manipulative, who don’t themselves believe but convince others to do so; and those who are cynical, who know the god is made, and yet believe. Moderns don’t believe in scientific facts—they know them. Facts must be true and unmade, like the holy icon that descends from heaven

Iconoclash. When the Portuguese arrived on the Gold Coast of Africa carrying holy images of the Virgin, they invented the term “fetishism” to describe the amulets worn by the Africans. The fetishes were fabricated by people, then worshipped—such idolatry had to go. The images of the Madonna were acheiropoiete, not made by any human hand—the true, holy image. In this instance, we do not encounter iconoclast vs. iconophile, but iconophile vs. iconophile. One image gets destroyed and another is put in its place. “Iconoclasm” describes the relatively transparent act of breaking an image for the express purpose of its destruction. “Iconoclash” describes the much more complex moment where an image gets broken, but we can’t be sure why, where the act of breaking might just destroy, or it might construct something new. Latour being Latour, he swirls three kinds of image destruction together: religion, science, contemporary art. The religious reformer destroys the old idols, the scientist debunks the old model, the artist breaks down the conventions of “art.” But, as should be clear, not one of these acts of destruction dispenses with images altogether. The scientist posits a new model, the artist who hates “art” creates more art, and the Portuguese install shrines to the Virgin where the old gods once lived. Denying the power of the idols, they break them and install new icons not made by human hands, new art that breaks the conventions of art, new unmediated facts.

Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash?” from Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (2002)
AND
Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” in Material Religion 7.1 (2011): 42-49.

Review by A.T. Coates

 

Lawrence, “Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age” (1989)

Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (1989)
Review by A.T. Coates

Lawrence’s Defenders of God argues fundamentalism needs to be understood comparatively. Writing at a time when many wanted to proclaim the death of fundamentalism, Lawrence insisted that fundamentalism was alive and well around the world. For Lawrence, fundamentalism is a religious ideology, one modern to the core. He writes, “Fundamentalists do not deny or disregard modernity; they protest as moderns against the heresies of the modern age” (ix). As he says over and over again, fundamentalists are moderns—but not modernists. Emerging from the context of modernity, they protest against the totalizing ideology of modernism, declaring that some things can’t be systematized, counted, or subsumed under the authority of the nation-state. They love modern technology, but hate the ideological claim that science can unlock all truth about the world. With painstaking precision, Lawrence spells out precisely what he thinks modernity is, what it means for fundamentalism to be a religious ideology, and how his comparative categories yield insight into movements as diverse as Protestant fundamentalism, Khomeini’s Iran, and the Haredim in Israel.

In its day, Lawrence’s text shifted the register of scholarly conversations about fundamentalism. He insists that modernity provides the essential ingredient for the emergence of fundamentalism. Without modernity, fundamentalism cannot exist. This observation still has the potential to yield important insight. As the lively AAR panels about John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America and Jeremy Stolow’s edited volume Deus in Machina revealed, we still have a lot to learn about the blurred edges and spaces between modernity, technology, consumption, religion.

Defenders is a book of a particular generation. The preface and introduction would still work in an undergraduate classroom setting, but much of the book proceeds meticulously through the histories of arguments on the use of particular categories: so-and-so said this about ideology, which was rebutted by someone else who said such-and-such, to which still another replied with something else, etc. In defending its comparative perspective against the prevailing attitudes of its day, the book focuses quite heavily on the fundamentalist protest against modernity. Wanting to avoid the positive theological definition of Sandeen (fundamentalism is millenarianism), it carefully lays out a case for the kind of modern protest against modernism that fundamentalism enacts. But in this scheme, much like in Marty’s fundamentalism project, fundamentalism remains locked in oppositionalism. Anti-modernism makes the “religious ideologies” of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalism comparable. Family resemblances unite fundamentalisms in their opposition to modernism. Fundamentalists are 1. “advocates of a pure minority viewpoint against a sullied majority;” 2. fundamentalists are “oppositiona;” 3. fundamentalists are almost always secondary-level male elites who appeal to the unmediated authority of scripture; 4. fundamentalists are speakers of a specialized language that unites them against outsiders, 5. fundamentalists have “no ideological precursors,” emerging only as ideological opponents of modernism, whenever it happens to appear in a particular context (100-101).

 

Kathryn Lofton, “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon” (2011)

Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) by A.T. Coates

Katie Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon is one of the most exciting recent works in American religious history. As I said of the “secularism” in John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, I see this book as far more than just a text “about” Oprah. Though it certainly brings insight into its subject, it presents something much more important: Lofton, along with a cohort of young scholars, has inaugurated a new way of doing scholarship in this discipline. The book doesn’t just drape theory over its subject, but advances new theoretical models for the study of culture/religion. It doesn’t stand in admiration of the creative agency of its subject, but critiques a politics and theory that would celebrate the agentive subject. It’s difficult to avoid performing this book while reviewing it. Lofton’s book reminds me of the babysitter I had who used to come over wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, ripped jeans, and redolent of cigarettes: idiosyncratic and confident, casually nonconformist, supremely knowledgeable and world wise, and way, way cooler than me…

This book tears down the wall between religion and culture. Oprah is a celebrity and an icon, a brand and a philosophy, a CEO and spiritual leader. She has a weight problem and an anxious bench, a multimedia corporate empire and a plan of salvation. By discerning the deep religious roots of Oprah’s language, rituals, and practices, Lofton tells a much bigger story about the relationship between religion and culture in modern America. In Oprah’s realm, consumption transforms—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or none besides, if you buy the dress that flatters your figure and feel fabulous about yourself, you practice Oprah’s spirituality. If you come up to the couch and share your awakening story—whether you realize that you’re too fat, that you have been abused, that you’re gay, that you need a new hairstyle—you can transform, receive the gifts of O, and begin to experience your best life, now. Writes Lofton, “Oprah… emerges as the exemplar of… the combined categorical freight of religion, spirituality, commodity, and corporatism. To study modern religion—to study the modern American economy—requires thinking of these categories as conjoined, and not distinct” (10). In this supposedly secular modern age, Oprah reveals just how blurry the boundaries between religious freedom and consumer choice have always been.

In analytical terms, Oprah: Gospel of an Icon doesn’t always satisfy. Though Lofton offers an extended meditation on the iconic O of Oprah’s empire, we hear very little about what an icon might be, what makes this an icon and not that, how this O becomes special. On a similar analytic note, some of the deep religious resonances Lofton identifies in Oprah don’t sit easy with me: why, for example, should readers believe that Oprah’s Book Club shares more with the Chautauqua circuit than with, say, a Christian Science reading room? Why, as a revival preacher, is she more Finney than Moody? The only halfway satisfying answer I’ve come up with is that this book says so, I believe it, that’s good enough for me, and this book is too important to be bogged down with such quibbling. Often, I got the feeling that I was being swept along by this book and just had to accept its unusual sources and claims for the sake of its larger argument. Lofton cites omnivorously, from Jorge-Luis Borges to Candy Gunther Brown, from David Chidester to a University of Chicago BD thesis from 1922. In terms of sources and historical precedents, the book just seems a little too selective, its tone just a little too dynamic and not quite precise enough.

But this book’s significance far outweighs my petty objections. Like the babysitter who taught me what grunge was, it puts something new on our scholarly horizons. Lofton argues that we don’t need to fawn over our subjects to take them “seriously.” She insists that we stop upholding the imaginary divide between religion and culture. She demonstrates that our critical posture and practical agnosticism do not mean we have to remain politically disengaged, merely observing the American religious landscape with wonder. She dares to suggest that religious studies has something important to teach others about what it means to live in a modern, consumerist, “secular” age.

Martin Kemp, “Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon” (2012)

Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (2012) – Review by A.T. Coates

Kemp’s lavishly illustrated art history text grapples with an important question for studies of religious visual cultures: what makes an image an icon? Though he offers a definition of “icon” near the beginning of the book, Kemp chooses his materials idiosyncratically and avoids analytical precision intentionally. There is no one definite criterion, no single necessary cause, that makes a “merely famous” image into an icon—but we all know an icon when we see one. He writes, “an iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations… across time and cultures, such that it has… transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context, and meaning” (3). So, what kinds of images does Kemp consider icons? He examines 11 varied examples: Jesus, the cross, the heart shape, the lion, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the head of Che Guevara, Nick Ut’s photograph “Villagers Fleeing Along Route 1” (napalmed and naked), the American flag, the Coca-Cola bottle shape, the double-helix shape of DNA, and the formula e=mc2.

If this seems like a motley crew, it’s supposed to. The book reads like an extended thought experiment: Are Jesus, the Mona Lisa, and e=mc2 all icons? If so, are they icons in the same way? If the medium, type of image, time period, and original function/purpose/intent of the image can vary dramatically from icon to icon, what makes one image iconic and another simply famous? In the conclusion, Kemp proposes that the term “icon” refers to a fuzzy set: much like “too hot” and “too cold,” no single set of characteristics defines the term “icon.” Nonetheless, some characteristics do seem to cluster around icons, and some images are much more likely to be counted as icons than others. Not all icons share a given set of characteristics, but we do seem to know an icon when we see it.

This is a beautiful, highly readable book with much interesting food for thought—but its “fuzzy” approach often seems to beg for more rigorous analysis from religious studies scholars. If I were to assign this to a class, I would have them read only the chapters on Mona Lisa, Che, the American flag, and the Coke bottle. In these chapters, the author’s art historical method proves quite illuminating—if somewhat lacking. Mona Lisa’s life as an icon has been quite different than the Coke bottle’s, but both demonstrate superb design and execution. But even in the chapter on Mona Lisa, the only icon from Kemp’s area of specialization as an art historian, his analysis practically begged for the input of a religious studies scholar like David Morgan. My favorite moment came when Kemp described his first private, close-up encounter with the Mona Lisa—outside its usual prison of extra-durable glass, velvet ropes, and pushy tourists. Having been specially invited to view the painting during its annual cleaning/inspection, the Oxford professor resorts to language that sounds frankly religious to describe the encounter with “the real thing.” He describes it as “spine-tingling in a way that is difficult to describe without sounding pretentious. Great art encountered in the flesh can produce sensations that go beyond visual stimulation” (142). After regaining his composure and talking about Da Vinci’s application of paint, the use of “incident and reflected light,” and his own process of viewing the image, he concludes in the worshipful mode: “And, of course, there is always her (Lisa’s) uncanny presence. I have never experienced a stronger feeling of presence in a work of art. . . . she is not just looking. She is overtly reacting, smiling, with a knowingness that is perpetually engaging and even disconcerting” (145). Here, the esteemed art historian sounds more like a religious devotee. Though he mentions the notion of presence (see 342), we do not get a good sense of what “presence” entails. More troublingly, this book tells us very little about how people encounter and negotiate the “presence” of their icons. The image of an ancestor demands food and acts of obeisance. The presence of Jesus in a doorway offers protection over the home. The presence of Our Lady in a statue heals the sick. The cross pendant around an evangelical’s neck reminds of Jesus’ presence in daily life and serves as a reminder to avoid sin. Each of these instances could be considered encounters with an “icon.” But they are also very different kinds of religious activities. Some of these “icons” seem more like amulets, apotropaic symbols, power objects, or tutelaries. Most importantly, people engage them in very different ways. Though he offers superb readings of the making of icons, Kemp’s analysis would have benefitted from more attention to their reception. By exploring the subtleties of how people engage with icons, Kemp’s fuzzy category might have come into sharper focus.

 

Selections from Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism Project”

Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, “Introduction” and “Conclusion” in Fundamentalisms Observed (1991) and Marty, “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 42.2 (1988): 15-29.

Marty’s understanding of fundamentalism is the water I swim in. The Fundamentalism Project, true to its aim, now holds the status of an encyclopedia. I suspect if you asked a group of well-informed undergraduates, they would produce a definition of fundamentalism something like Marty’s. It’s a testament to the intellectual force of his comparative approach. It’s also a strong incentive to innovate.

For Marty, the term “fundamentalism” captures the family resemblances in a global array of religious phenomena. Acknowledging that the term “fundamentalism” isn’t going away anytime soon, he uses it to designate “fundamentalism-like movements” rather than any particular substantive thing. This is a key part of Marty’s argument: unlike earlier substantive definitions (such as James Barr’s equation of Protestant fundamentalism with biblical inerrancy), Marty isolates similarities among fundamentalisms across many religious traditions. First, he identifies what “fundamentalism” is not: 1) it is not conservatism, classicism, or orthodoxy, 2) it is not a vestigial remnant of earlier times, 3) it is not synonymous with certain substantive elements, doctrines, or particular tenets of a faith (e.g. inerrancy), 4) it is not the only kind of opposition to “secular rationalism,” 5) it is not just anti-science or anti-rationalist in perspective, 6) it is not opposed to modern technology or media, 7) it is not in decline or likely to fade away, 8) it is not always composed of activists, militants, terrorists, or belligerents, 9) it is not a way of compensating for economic or intellectual deprivation. Next, Marty suggests the traits fundamentalist-like movements share: 1) they are always reactive against “modernity,” 2) they are selective in choosing “fundamentals,” 3) they are “scandalous,” meaning they cause offense to groups outside themselves, 4) they are always exclusive and separatist, 5) they are always oppositional, 6) they are absolutist, 7) they are anti-developmental and anti-evolutionary, 8) they are anti-relativistic and anti-hermeneutical, 9) they consider themselves “agents of the sacred power, person or force which gives life to their group,” and 10) they are teleological. In short, fundamentalism is “a tendency, a habit of mind, found within religious communities and paradigmatically embodied in certain representative individuals and movements, which manifests itself as a strategy or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group” (Conclusion 835).

George Marsden famously defined fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.” To play Marsden against Marty a little, one might say that Marty considers fundamentalism “militantly anti-modernist” religion. For Marsden, the “modernism” against which early Protestant fundamentalism militantly rebelled was a very specific set of theological positions and changes in American culture. Marty’s fundamentalists hostile to modernity itself, opposing a varied set of political, cultural, and intellectual conditions wherever they can assume the name of “modernity.” Militancy unites Marty’s fundamentalists in their oppositions to various modernities around the world. They are “religious idealists” who coalesce around a personal and collective identity, then fight back, fight for, fight with, fight against, and fight under (Intro ix-x). This is not to say that Marty caricatures fundamentalists as terrorists. Rather, it is to observe that he categorizes fundamentalism as an internal disposition, “a tendency, a habit of mind… which manifests itself as a strategy, or set of strategies… to preserve… identity” (835).

Obviously, such a perspective takes little interest in objects, practices, bodies, media, or materiality. The conclusion essay gapes in wonder at “fundamentalism’s seemingly innate understanding of, and effortless manipulation of, modern mass media of communication (and propaganda)” (832). Fittingly for its internalized understanding of fundamentalism, this presents media as something fundamentalists understand innately and manipulate effortlessly. In this understanding, internal fundamentalism spreads by using inert media instrumentally. As the parenthetical remark about propaganda suggests, this model emphasizes content and the meaning-making activities of religious agents. Fundamentalists qua agents use media to deliver their militant mental habits to as many people as possible. They do so with quasi-magic effortlessness, innate understanding. In my future dissertation, I want turn the tables. I want to ask what kinds of mediation made Protestant fundamentalism possible. I want to examine the articulations of power, techniques of the body, networks of objects, and technologies of mediation that made it possible for something called “fundamentalism” to emerge in early 20th-century America. 

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.

© 2014 A.T. Coates

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑