Was Antebellum America Secular?


Michael Warner in Immanent Frame:

The question “Was Antebellum America Secular?” obviously depends on what one means by secular. Because the term is dialectical by nature and immanent to the struggles of the age, we cannot expect it to be a neutral analytic framework; like secularismor religion, it requires constant qualification to be of any analytic use. As Gauri Viswanathan has noted, in many polemical contexts “words like ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ have lost their descriptive value and function instead as signposts to given attitudes.” It is almost impossible to see the question of my title without anticipating that a question of validity will be at stake.

And indeed in American media the question is taken at face value and given opposite answers, with strong normative implications. In the “Yes” camp are people like Susan Jacoby, whose bookFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) argued that America, contrary to the claims of the then-ascendant religious right, had been founded in rationalist skepticism about religion. (Despite its subtitle, which might promise some inquiry into historical conditions, the book is a narrative of heroic secularists and a digest of their “heritage.”) In the “No” camp are evangelical historians such as David Barton, who believes that America was founded as a Christian republic, with no presumption of equal participation by Jews, or atheists, let alone Muslims; even Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” he argues, was meant as a “one-directional” wall (if one can imagine such a thing), blocking government out of religion but not the other way around.

The disagreement between Jacoby and Barton has become a classic example of an echo chamber effect. Both have websites and enthusiastic followings (especially Barton, who essentially self-publishes), and both are likely to remain indifferent to anything that might be said here. (Jacoby’s is a simple author sitebut Barton’s is much more extensive; it also attracts rebuttals on many counter-websites.) Both positions, though stated in their extreme and polemical form in the nonacademic press, have more or less respectable versions that hold considerable power, especially in law.