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  • Secularization: An Academic Truism or a Dubious Hypothesis?
  • Michael Lackey (bio)
Tracy Fessenden. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. 337 pp.
Vincent P. Pecora. Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006. x + 242 pp.
Theodore Ziolkowski. Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. xii + 283 pp.

In one way or another, recent books on secularization seek to complicate and unsettle the traditional secular/religious binary. Tracy Fessenden intelligently and convincingly uses race theory to demonstrate that a white = Christian = American formulation was the implicit basis of identity in the United States from the time of the Pilgrims. This discourse enabled early Americans to configure minorities, especially Indians, “as the unregenerate Other to the Puritans’ salvific Word” (Fessenden 7). After the United States underwent a process of secularization, Fessenden argues, the “Protestant discourse [End Page 815] of religious otherness [morphed] into a secular discourse of racia l otherness” and thereby established a clear continuity rather than a decisive rupture between America’s religious conception of subjectivity and its secular correlative (9). Vincent P. Pecora focuses on philosophy and social theory to demonstrate that Western secularization, instead of having effectively overcome or supplanted religion, is for the most part a sublimation and/or distortion of a theological mindset and sensibility. Therefore, “what we complacently understand as ‘secular,’” Pecora argues, “comes with certain historical and religious strings attached” (2). To clarify and support this view, Pecora does first-rate analyses of the way Juergen Habermas’s social philosophy is rooted in Judeo-Christian ideas of “natural right and law” and a “teleology embedded in temporality” (52, 57); Karl Marx’s and Walter Benjamin’s work is grounded on a “secularized version of messianic eschatology” (77); and Emile Durkheim’s “disenchanted sociology” is ultimately “a political theology based on nothing more than the sacred character of social life, of society as a religious object” (116). Theodore Ziolkowski develops a theory of secular surrogates, arguing that “individuals transfer the psychic energy formerly reserved for religion and in which they seek the same gratifications, and often the same forms and rituals, as previously afforded by religion” (x). Focusing on writers from the first third of the twentieth century, Ziolkowski argues that many thoughtful intellectuals transmuted religious desire into secular counterparts, such as: “art for art’s sake, the flight to India, socialism, myth, and utopian vision” (xi). In short, secularization is, for these recent scholars, more religious and less secular than previously thought.

Taken together, these recent books on secularization, strong and insightful as they are, will serve primarily to muddle and confuse rather than to illuminate and clarify; this is the case because of the three authors’ radically divergent objectives and methods of analysis. For instance, Fessenden skillfully demonstrates how New England Puritans, who have “come to stand at the origin point of” a “quintessentially American narrative of religious tolerance and accommodation,” were able to shield from others and themselves their “violent exclusions” of non-white-Protestant Christians by “subsuming these acts of violence under the transcendent, redemptive authority of the Christian Word” (17). In a brilliant chapter about the New England Primer, Fessenden specifically examines how Noah Webster contributed to this surface-tolerant-but-subsurface-exclusionary model of American Christian identity through his authoritative definitions of “savage” and “civilization.” In the “savage” entry, Webster poses the rhetorical question: “‘What nation, since the commencement of the christian era, ever rose from savage to civilized without christianity?’” [End Page 816] Given that “the Christian conquest of ‘savagery’” is essential for establishing “‘civilization,’” white nineteenth-century Protestants, Fessenden argues, were able to “effect a subtle incorporation of brutal aggressions” against savage Others (52); it is this discursive model that enables Americans today to hide “the violence and coercion that have attended the formation of American democratic space in the guise of the neutrality and universality of the secular” (217). Ziolkowsi, by contrast, focuses on existential questions, suggesting that Godlessness ushers humanity into a disenchanted world in which human lives remain “unfulfilled” (238). After surveying the works of thirty writers, he caps off his study with...


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