Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, RELIGION ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 24 September 2018

Spatial Constructions of the American Secular

Summary and Keywords

Secularization and secularism are interpretive narratives and analytical systems of locative naming that co-construct the category of religion in spatial relationship to the idea of the secular as not-religion. These approaches were developed in the 19th century to make sense of the social restructuring of industrial societies. They begin with the assumption that religion is spatially identifiable as Christian church space, as readily recognizable in built congregational structures. And they consider the secular, in the most literal sense, as that which is not. That is, the secular is everything physically outside church space. But secularization theorists often do not adhere to this literal interpretation of spatial difference. They also use space metaphorically in their understanding of “disestablishment” as referring to more than just the physical state-expropriation of church land, but also to the separation of spheres that results from nation-state legal sovereignty, particularly focused on the spatial division between secular culture and church subcultures.

Whereas secularization theory offers narrative frames to orient a historical trajectory of religion in relation to not-religion, the study of secularism describes attempts to understand the political and legal regulation of religion in relation to sovereign nation-states. Methodological distinctions between secularization and secularism invoke a long-standing problem in the study of religion: the ability of the scholar to discern the difference between the metaphorical map of religion in relation to the idea of the secular, and the state governance of physical territory.

Classical secularization theory was constructed within the colonial context of the 19th century, and it carries within itself the spatial distinctions that define an Enlightenment conception of the Western nation-state, as a secular sovereignty set apart from and transcendent of the revelatory particularity of religious authority. More recent versions of secularization theory in the United States still assume that only the secular state can transcend physical space and still control its boundaries and borders. Religious transcendence, by contrast, is viewed as otherworldly. The reason for this is because unlike secular authority, which is self-evident and universal, religious authority is revelatory and particular. Within secularization theory, religions then are limited in their ability to physically enact, in every sphere of life, their revelatory mandates. They can do so only as long as they maintain a high level of orthodox belief and practice, to the extent that there is no distinction between religious and cultural authority. Secularization theory thus assumes that religious pluralism of any kind results in a competition to see which religion can control all aspects of life. The nation-state then is viewed as the transcendent mediator of religious claims to civic life and public space. And while secularization theory considers this mediation in the spatial terms of public practice and private belief, studies of secularism give more attention to the historical and contextual limits of nation-state transcendence, as well as the ways in which nation-states physically bound religion as a category, whether as located in the legal limits of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, or a congregational building with a street address.

Though the term secularism has been a co-generative concept in classical secularization theory, theories of secularism have been more fully developed since the late 20th century. Some of those approaches have extended the spatial concerns of secularization theory, particularly as related to the question of religious endurance as measured in terms of public practice and private belief. The mere difference, which has garnered quite a bit of writing, is to shift the interpretive gaze away from the individual challenge of Protestant Christians to maintain a comprehensive religious meaning-making system, a “sacred canopy,” in the midst of increasing religious diversity, to the ability of “orthodox” religious subcultures to maintain religious authority in the midst of a pervasive secularism that is antagonistic to the possibility of any totalizing religion, one that is lived out in all spheres of life. Other theoretical approaches to secularism, however, are more directly engaged with post-colonial scholarship, and are more focused on the role of the nation-state in the categorical construction of religion, than they are worried about the social loss of traditional religion.

Keywords: secularization, secularism, secularity, race, space, colonialism, disestablishment, disenchantment, nation-state

Classical Secularization Theory and American Sociology

The term secularization, in its most basic sense, refers to the legal and symbolic process in which a state government takes control of institutions and property, such as prisons, hospitals, schools, the military, as well as buildings and land connected to those institutions, away from religious authorities. The historical context of that occurrence in Europe is the narrative starting point for classical secularization theory. Sociologist Peter Berger described this process in The Sacred Canopy (1967), stating, “When we speak of society and institutions in modern Western history, of course, secularization manifests itself in the evacuation by the Christian churches of areas previously under their control or influence—as in the separation of church and state, or in the expropriation of church lands, or in the emancipation of education from ecclesiastical authority.” It is important at the outset to highlight that Berger’s description of secularization entails spatial distinctions, as the “evacuation” of “areas” and “lands.” And while Berger was influenced most directly by the secularization theory of Max Weber, which assumed that the increasing rationalization of society produced more highly differentiated spheres of life, as referenced above, it also is important to note that one of the key underlying spatial distinctions of secularization theory between “sacred” and “profane” (often transcribed as religious and secular) permeates classical theoretical approaches to the study of religion, from Emile Durkheim to Mircea Eliade. Indeed, the theoretical articulation of secularization cannot do without spatial distinctions since it posits that space without religion is secular space. By first expropriating land from the Roman Catholic Church the Western nation-state was the political mechanism that initiated the primary spatial distinction of political disestablishment. Secularization theorists then use that restructuring of physical territory as the locative metaphor for the subsequent spatial separation of state sovereignty from Christian church control in political and legal spheres.1

In his approach to the study of American religions, Berger popularized the sociological framework of classical secularization theory. Building on the theoretical foundation of Max Weber, Berger argued in The Sacred Canopy that separation of church and state fostered cultural conditions that strained against collective attempts at coherent shared religious meaning in public life, ultimately leading to the privatization of religious belief and practice. The key spatial distinction in this argument was the Weberian idea that religion is relegated to a separate sphere, in relation to other spheres of life, in relation to the modern nation-state. As the state claims authority over the public sphere, which includes the physical spaces of workplaces, public schools, city streets, judicial buildings, and military infrastructure, it moves religion elsewhere, to the domesticated spaces of family home and private life. This process, for both Weber and Berger, was disenchanting, in that religion lost its power to sacralize the world in its entirety. The result was a crisis of shared belief that signaled a decline in public religion. And in this theoretical interpretation, the church was set apart as a spatial enclave for religious meaning-making, now positioned as one competitor among many in the multiple “spheres of reality.”2

In these and other attempts to apply classical secularization theory to the study of American religion, particularly from the 1960s to the 1990s, sociologists assumed that in the United States, as in modern Europe, expressions of religion in public spaces would decline as the church in any singular sense would become one among many religious providers of meaning-making in the cultural marketplace, and religion would become increasingly confined to private spaces. The net result was that the generalizable thesis that “modernity is inimical to traditional religious belief,” as sociologist James Davison Hunter argued, depended upon the spatial disjunction between the congregational church, as the placeholder of religious belief; and the nation-state, as the promoter of secular institutions.3

In U.S. versions of classical secularization theory, religious belief was imagined in a spatially contingent relationship with an expanding secular state. And sociologists like Hunter, who upheld the historical principles of that theory, used the term secularism to describe the institutional expansion of the nation-state into spheres once dominated by religion. Hunter wrote, for example, that “The traditions of secularism have become too deeply engrained in American culture and institutional structure to permit anything but, at best, a large-scale, private-sphere renewal.”4 The religious renewal Hunter was concerned with was that of “traditional” religion, a qualifier that harkened a bygone era when religion was the primary source of social morality and religious ethics were livable in all aspects of life. This assumption, again, was rooted in a Weberian understanding of Christian ethics as impossible, except for the most heroic of humans, to be lived fully within the fractured order of the modern West.

This notion of traditionalism, then, assumed a time when religion permeated all aspects of everyday life. By contrast, the traditionalist conception of secularism posited a historical rupture, when the nation-state began a political program of removing religion from public spaces and nonreligious state and cultural institutions. Though this historical narrative has a temporal bent, its interpretive mechanism was still primarily spatial: it imagined that religion had once been spatially coincident with what we now call culture but that religion had become set apart from culture, and that secularism dictates the terms of religious removal from public space. The key to understanding how classical secularization theorists conflate the temporal and spatial is to notice how they view secularism as self-declaratively universal and timeless—valid across both space and time. Think humanistic statements, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Classical secularization theorists like Hunter, who want to counteract the removal of religion from public space and protect the prophetic voice of Protestant Christianity—particularly in the United States—therefore write in an effort to reveal that secularism, that like religion, in fact has a history, and that in the United States that history constitutes a “tradition,” which they frequently mark as rooted in the Enlightenment.

On the one hand, classical secularization theorists describe the political project of secularism in spatial terms: the removal of religion from public spaces and its confinement to separate spaces. Yet, on the other hand, they insist that like religion, secularism has a history, a tradition. But what may seem at first glance a merely flat historicizing, is bifurcated by the eternal return of an imagined lost traditional religion that was spatially coextensive with the nation-state, set against the traditions of secularism that follow that mythical historical moment. In other words, traditional religion is rendered here similarly to Protestant Christian understandings of the incarnate Jesus, as a divine essence that was once outside space and history, then entered them, and then left again, but still remains in spirit within the metaphorical space of the believer’s heart. In theological terms, this understanding describes the “inward turn” of the Protestant Reformation. In the theoretical terms of Hunter, and particular versions of classical secularization theory, “traditional” signals a spatial rupture in history; it denotes something that entered into the physical world, back then, but is no more.5

The term “traditional” then does not necessarily mean the same thing as “tradition,” in this theoretical context. Tradition describes the temporal pattern of historical development, when the practices of a tradition change over time. By contrast, secularization theorists use the term “traditional” to invoke a temporal break from the present, in order to return to a mythic moment in the past in which the relation of the divine to human society was somehow spatially different. They have imagined that difference either in the incarnational terms of the bodily presence of Christ, in the communal terms of the “true” New Testament church, or in the myth of self-evident belief for all. In each of these options, the sacred power of Christianity is spatially undifferentiated. That is, it is not relegated to a separate sphere but rather is all encompassing, walking the earth, permeating all aspects of social life, or taken for granted to the point it is common sense and therefore the dominant mode of cultural expression.

Ultimately, this particular spatial imaginary is normatively evangelical, in the sense that it recovers a particular incarnational moment in Christian history, one that it labels “traditional,” as a religious essence that survives modernity only in spatial enclaves and inward dispositions. By contrast, this essence is considered more transcendent, and therefore truer, than religious traditions, which are entangled with the historicity and materiality of a changing world over time. And here, the sectarian limits of this imaginary are revealed. For it constructs true religion in the image of Protestant Christianity, as a religious essence temporally contained in a past moment, and recovered only through the private inwardness of human personality and within the revelatory authority of believing congregations. Against this essence, it marks what it considers traditions, including Catholicism, secularism, and world religions, as partial revelations, and competing value systems. Similar to evangelical Christological understandings of the incarnation of Jesus, as a historical moment of divine entry into space and time from another realm beyond that space and time, a certain strand of secularization theorists see “traditional” or “orthodox” religion as something that was once fully manifest in an actual place and time, in their imagined view of the early Christian church as the “true New Testament church,” for example, but is no longer manifest in any physical space. In this way, secularization theory provides a way for these scholars to assume that there are physical and spatial limits for religion in modern life, which in turn enables them to privilege certain forms of Protestantism as best adapted to the constraints of modernity. And the reason for them that strands of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are able to thrive in modern life is because practitioners in those traditions are able to carve out subcultural space within which divine power is manifest supraspatially, as an affective mood that is physically felt in the body of the believer, often described in the heart or the gut, but is never fully present in any public physical form, such as the Eucharist. Which is to say that some secularization theorists consider certain forms of Protestantism as more sober minded, in that they eschew spatial expansiveness and do not try to change the world in its entirety, but focus instead on the more spatially limited program of changing their personally proximate worlds of self, family, and friends. And yet, paradoxically, many of these same theorists, who confess to a desire for large social change on issues such as poverty, racial injustice, and environmental degradation, consider those forms of Protestantism limited by the very spatial distinctions between the individual and society, Christianity and culture, which enable them to succeed in modernity. As a result, some theorists trained in this approach have turned to the very traditions, such as Catholicism, which often have been deemed too space and time bound by the standards of secularization, to recover collective ritual resources for material encounters within divine presence and thus provide a more materialist basis for normative claims of social ethics.

The evangelicalism of this spatial imaginary is recognizable in its bifurcated view of that imagined religious essence, as well as its understanding of the church as an enclave, as spatially set apart from the modern world and secular society. Not all classical secularization theorists share the same ethical concerns of evangelical apologists, or those who want to maintain a doctrinally distinct prophetic voice. But classical secularization theorists do share a concern for the social costs of religiousness lost. Weber expressed his worry in the terms of disenchantment and the fear of the iron cage, in which humans are spatially contained by the walls of their workplace, unable to find transcendent meaning, as vocation, within the limits of rationalized labor. Berger expressed his concern in the terms of anomie and alienation. And other social theorists, from Robert Bellah to Robert Putnam, bemoaned the decline of public religion and the accompanying antinomian crisis of utilitarian and expressive individualisms that described an infinite number of self-interested personalized religions. If religion was confined to discrete private spaces in modern secular society, they worried, then what would bind citizens together into a civic republic?6

The New Paradigm for the Study of American Religions

The Protestant spatial imaginary of secularization theory is inseparable from its normative and ethical narrative. In classical secularization theory, that narrative is structured as a jeremiad, of a religiousness lost that can never truly be recovered in modern secular society. But, so the story goes, the faithful should at least try to recover what they can, where they can. Such is the normative claim. In revised versions of secularization theory, though, its jeremiad pessimism of religious decline is rewritten as the edifying homily of ascendant religion. Faced with the overwhelming sociological evidence that religions have flourished statistically in the United States, and that Europe has historically been the only place that the rainy day forecast of secularization theory was accurate, secularization theorists worked to develop a new spatial paradigm for the study of American religion.

Berger, for example, recanted his earlier thesis of religious decline, arguing instead for the opposite, that religious participation has increased post-WWII, and describing this process as the (de)secularization of religion in modern life. A few years prior, sociologist R. Stephen Warner published a highly influential article outlining the basic principles of a new paradigm for the study of American religion. Warner questioned the assumption that disestablishment of church and state necessarily provoked a religious crisis of personal belief or had the spatially confining effect postulated by classic secularization theory. Rather, he argued that disestablishment produced a religious marketplace, within which voluntary religious associations flourished. A Protestant congregational model, Warner argued, was highly successful and provided the organizational blueprint for later arriving immigrant groups to succeed as well. Warner described the process of immigrant groups adapting that model as de facto congregationalism.7

In these revised versions, the spatial structure of classical secularization theory still remained intact. The new paradigm still assumed disestablishment, the spatial distinction between church and state, marked the beginning of a modern secular age. But rather than fretting the displacement of a religious monopoly, and assuming that this displacement meant that a seamless canopy of religious meaning was forever rent, the new secularization theorists celebrated the spatial disjunction. They jettisoned the European pessimism of classical secularization theory and embraced an American optimism in the religious marketplace. In spatial terms, they highlighted the fact that the United States did not share with Europe its parochial history, when church members were required to attend parish congregations based on where they lived. Rather, because of disestablishment, Americans could voluntarily associate with whatever religious congregation they wanted, provided it was available. And even then, if they did not find a congregation that they liked, they could start their own.8 In other words, instead of nations as divided (into parish) spaces, American space was one vast field of competition in which private religious spaces could grow and multiply indefinitely.

Rethinking the geographic boundaries of the Old World with the marketplace model of the New World, new paradigm theorists emphasized the productive advantages of religious competition. No longer did they consider disestablishment a cause of the kind of anomie that characterized individuals struggling to make sense of the world amid a blur of spatially crimped religious offerings. Rather, these theorists proposed that the kind of anomie Weber and Berger and others worried about hinged on the impossible expectation that humans require an expansive canopy of meaning that covered all members of society. Sociologist Christian Smith, for example, replaced the image of a sacred canopy with that of the sacred umbrella. He argued that in the modern world, religious actors “only need ‘sacred umbrellas,’ small portable, accessible relational worlds—religious reference groups—‘under’ which their beliefs can make complete sense.” Shifting the approach from a negative to a positive interpretation of religious competition, by viewing it as catalyst for more and not less religion in public life, Smith and others were better able to make sense of the enduring vitality of religious participation in the United States. In fact, Smith argued that religion not only survived, it in fact thrived within the embattled spheres of modern life by proliferating subcultural spaces, as the umbrellas metaphor implies.9

Again, with Smith, as with Warner, the primary spatial distinctions of classical secularization theory persisted. Smith likewise maintained the notion that disestablishment, the spatial separation of the church from the state, by the state, marks the beginning of a secularizing process; the idea that within the bifurcated world of religious and secular spheres, the Protestant congregation is the organizational model for a successful religious space (with success measured in terms of numbers of adherents as well as the number of spaces); and that religious spaces, more than secular spaces, provide humans with the “basic requirements of our life,” which include among them the capacity to make meaning out of everyday experience and to cultivate shared moral principles.10

The revised approach of the new paradigm, though, did differ significantly from its predecessors in its ability to account for religious pluralism. Indeed, the new paradigm theorists were highly motivated to make sense of the religious restructuring of American religion since 1965, the year when revised immigration policy created an opportunity for increased immigrant arrivals from beyond Western Europe, and particularly from South Asia. Many of those immigrants practiced non-Christian religious traditions, particularly Islam and Hinduism. Migrant arrivals from Mexico and Central America to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s also added to the increasingly diverse religious landscape. Amid these demographic shifts, new paradigm scholars revised secularization theory to better account for religious pluralism in American public life. Warner, in particular, promoted the spatial image of the multicultural table to imagine an expanding public sphere for religious diversity, a table where new immigrant religions now found their own seat, alongside Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In this model, the secular state guaranteed a neutral spatial field within which the congregational practice of pluralist religions could be protected. Thus, counter to classical secularization theory, the generation of the secular space of the state effectively promoted religious vitality, not decline, as it provided the volunteeristic conditions of pluralism. The new paradigm model formulated this spatial expansion of volunteer associations from just a variety of Protestant sects, to a space for non-Protestants as well, in terms of another “disestablishment” in U.S. history. In this way, they attempted, just as in classical secularization theory, to integrate spatial and temporal divisions.11

Classical secularization theorist Will Herberg, for example, had previously described the historical series of disestablishments in the United States using the spatial metaphor of the triple melting pot. The separation of church and state at the founding of the American nation was the first disestablishment. However, this disestablishment only served to create space for various Protestant sects, but did not include other religious traditions. Thus, the spatial idea that the first disestablishment produced a single melting pot. Herberg built on this model but argued that after 1945 two other “pots” of Catholicism and Judaism were added alongside Protestantism as acceptable ways to “melt” religious affiliation with American identity. New paradigm scholars continued to use spatially expansive imagery, though now counting chairs instead of pots. The result was the straightforward thesis that for new immigrants, as immigrants before them, to become American was to become recognizably religious. That is, it was easier for immigrants to find a seat at the multicultural table if they self-identified with a religious tradition and associated with a religious congregation. This thesis was stated most succinctly by sociologist Prema Kurien, who in her chapter for Warner’s Gatherings in Diaspora (1998) argued that for many South Asian immigrants, “to become American is to become Hindu.”12 Thus, what Smith did with Berger’s sacred canopy metaphor, multiplying it as an endless number of umbrellas, Herberg and later Warner did with the single melting pot theory, pluralizing it, whether with more pots in the factory, or more chairs at the table.

Reversing the general thesis of classical secularization theory, from decreasing to increasing religious vitality, the new paradigm still assumes that the nation-state maintains a value-neutral public sphere within which it protects religious practice. Thus it is that secularism, the state project of defining and regulating religion in public spaces, facilitates the production of what new paradigm scholars imagine as a multicultural table for immigrant religions. As in its classical theoretical formulation, Protestantism remains the placeholder against which religion and religious difference are defined within this new secularization paradigm. This persistent pattern is clearly evident in the theoretical description of de facto congregationalism that assumes a distinct Protestant organizational type provides the spatial template for successful immigrant religious groups.13

Here is where the spatial imagination of secularization theory participates in the historical process of its own theoretical production. Or to put it another way, this is where map blurs with territory. For the interpretative assumption in secularization theory that Protestantism is the structuring agent of religious diversity has significant historical precedent. For just one example, consider that white Protestants organized the Chicago World’s Parliament of Religion in 1893, inviting representatives of world religious traditions to the United States, with the purpose of demonstrating the transcendent moral and ethical superiority of Protestant Christianity. Present at the Parliament were representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and African religions, among others. And all of these representatives dressed in what was assumed to be native attire. By contrast, the event organizers, white Protestants, dressed in business suits. And in the way they dressed, these white Protestants performed their penultimate classificatory assumption that they represented a historically transcendent universal truth, and everyone else embodied a historically contingent particular religion. Even though the business suit also has a history, that history the Protestant organizers ignored. Instead, they imagined the business suit as the attire for those who had escaped the limited realms of historical religions for the spatially expansive realm of universal ethics.14

In their self-portrayal, white Protestants were the citizens who, considering themselves occupants of an all-embracing space at once Protestant and secular, could walk from the church deacon meeting to the bank board meeting without ever changing their clothes. To think that Swami Vivekenanda, who represented Hinduism, could do the same would question the religious limits of secularism. But unlike the hijab controversies a century later in France, which posed that very question, such limits have historically been taken for granted by those in political power in American history. That is, the map has been assumed the same as the territory. To see that point, just take the fact that even though African Americans provided much of the labor to build the physical structures, including those of the White City, that comprised the World’s Columbian Exposition that year in Chicago, they were not invited, nor allowed to participate in the Parliament of Religions. As evident in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, material culture was used to mark bodily religious difference. Similarly, in spatial terms, material culture has been used to mark congregational religious difference, to recognize in common sense observations the difference between a Hindu temple and a Methodist church. Focusing on these material distinctions, religious spaces are approached as sites of difference, whereas secular spaces are sites for the synthesis and negotiation of difference. This spatial juxtaposition privileges religious traditions, such as Protestantism, as the medium of secular transcendence, as evident in the 1893 World’s Parliament. The new paradigm of secularization theory in the United States assumes that religious difference, which it values and promotes, is materially recognizable.15

In both the 1893 example, and in the theoretical assumptions of the new paradigm, Protestantism is the only religious tradition capable of hiding itself within secular life. Within the spatial history of the United States, liberal forms of Protestantism have hidden themselves within secular culture—subtly pervading those spaces considered secular—while evangelical forms of Protestantism have defined themselves in opposition to secular culture and spaces, even as they rather easily coexisted in relation to it. Sociologists of religion who identify with the new paradigm, those scholars invested in the explanatory power of secularization theory, tend to emphasize the structural impact of Protestantism in American religious history, noting how it provides a template for religious success. Their story is a generally positive one of organizational expansion, in which they see Protestantism as facilitating the spatial conditions—disestablishment and the secular formation of a religious marketplace in the public sphere—for multireligious thriving.16 In other words, many secularization theorists define the United States as a historically Protestant-secular space within which non-Protestant religious subspaces develop in relation to increased immigration from non-Protestant areas of the world.

The Continuum Model for the Study of American Secularism

Scholars of American secularism, however, tend to emphasize the structural constraints of that story. Whereas new paradigm theorists may cite the decline of mainline Protestant denominationalism in the 1950s and the subsequent trend of immigrant religious diversity since 1965 as evidence of an ever-increasing set of religious options, scholars of secularism point to that same evidence as signaling a cultural convergence. In other words, in structural terms, non-Protestant religious subspaces are organized in the image of Protestant congregational space, which itself has historically developed in a way that fits secular legal definitions of religion. To illustrate this contrast, consider that for new paradigm scholars, the fact that a Hindu congregation in the United States now has “Sunday School” classes (something its participants did not formerly have in India), is evidence of de facto congregationalism.

That is, for these scholars, the historical legacies of Protestant Christianity in the United States continue to organizationally structure the religious practices of immigrants, but this process, they argue, signals the restructuring of the overall religious landscape, as new immigrant adapt to their host environment and publicly present additional religious options in the public sphere. But for some scholars of American secularism, such a phenomenon is evidence that the very appearance of religious difference in this case is merely a gloss on what really is the expansion of Protestant religion into all areas of life, including those found within non-Protestant religious traditions.

This is in part the point that historian Tracy Fessenden makes when she describes secularism as “the ability of a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both the religious and the secular.” Rather than using the spatial model of a religious marketplace, Fessenden and others employ a continuum model to make sense of how Protestantism historically persists within American culture, even after it has suffered a public death, as marked in the demise of a mainline Protestant establishment in the 1950s. Whereas new paradigm scholarship put a smiling face on secularization theory, those who use a continuum model to study the relationship between the religious and the secular in the United States attempt to unmask that appearance in order to reveal the troubled waters of the dark soul underneath.17 They distill secularization theory into the trope of the “Protestant-secular continuum,” which describes the historical process in which secularism emerges out of Protestantism over a period of time, beginning, as Weber argued, in the Protestant Reformation. Thus, secularism is historically continuous with Protestantism, though somewhere between 16th-century Europe and 20th-century America the terms Protestantism and secularism were used in legal, theological, and related governmental spheres, as categorical markers of two spatially distinct extremes: a secular public sphere and a religious private sphere. This appearance of difference, though, masked the underlying continuity between Protestantism and secularism that enabled Protestantism to hide in the self-defined universalism of the secular, even as it imagined the universal in the image of its own religious limits.

It is with this spatial relationship in mind that Fessenden seeks to reclaim the analytical power of Weber to offer an interpretive framework for better understanding the historical persistence of Protestant hegemony. Her reading of Weber is much closer to that of sociologist Talcott Parsons, the key translator of his works for an American audience, than it is to Berger’s. As noted, Berger emphasized religious privatization as the likely outcome of secularization. Even when he later recanted his general thesis, he still maintained a key spatial distinction between private and public. That is, he still assumed that religion was privatized in the 1960s and 1970s, but later was de-privatized after the 1980s. In Berger’s later description of (de)secularization and (re)enchantment, religion still moved through a process of privatizing and disenchantment, in order to return from it. For Parsons, though, secularization, as understood in classical Weberian terms, did not necessarily lead to individuation and privatization. Rather, disestablishment facilitated the conditions in which a particular form of religion—Protestantism—was diffused within public institutions and thus became coterminous with public space. Thus, for Parsons, in the United States, secularity itself was Protestant! Though Fessenden never cites Parsons, beyond his role as a translator of The Protestant Ethic, as noted earlier, she shares a similar spatial imagination. For the very notion of a Protestant-secular continuum within which Protestant Christianity can fade into American culture invites the reader, as Parsons did, to see the spiritual ghosts of dead religions that fill the empty spaces of the secular moment.

Other scholars of American religions have utilized a continuum model with similar imaginative power and interpretive effect. For example, historian John Lardas Modern argues in his study of secularism in the antebellum United States that a continuum is the sine qua non of secularism in all its varieties, affirming Fessenden’s use of a “Protestant-secular continuum” as the analytical descriptor for the “invisible consensus of American Protestantism.” While Fessenden tracked a more Weberian historical genealogy, Modern scans the background noise of that approach in search of a spatially expansive Durkheimian soundtrack. Listening to Durkheim through the filter of Michel Foucault, Modern hears American institutions as haunted by various noises of Protestant Christianity.18

It is undeniable that Protestantism has historically influenced the development of secularization and secularism in the United States. Some scholars, though, have noted that the rest of the world does not share the same religious history. And they have cautioned against globalizing the American context and making a similar mistake as classical secularization theorists did when they compared the rest of the world to Europe, only to find that they were the exception, and not everyone else. These criticisms have heightened an ongoing conversation over the interpretive limits of the idea of a Protestant secular. In global terms, this means considering secularization and secularism in the United States as one variety among many. And just as the U.S. variety was different than the European variety, other nation-states may have their own varied secular formation.19

In spatial terms, these criticisms highlight the tension between the particular and the universal that is ever present in secularization theory and related approaches to the study of secularism. This tension between the particular and the universal is often expressed through a series of spatial juxtapositions between colonizers and colonized, outsider and insider, belief and ritual, transcendence and imminence, and global and local. Theorists of multiple secularisms attempt to make sense of the second side of that spatial divide, trying to account for how the colonized, or the insider, or the ritual practitioner—those that have been in a sense displaced by the idea of a singular Western secularism—use the very secularizing techniques of that displacement to claim space and place. For example, in the American South, southern whites were both colonizers and colonized. They were colonizers because they displaced indigenous peoples and maintained the institution of slavery. But they also were colonized, in their own view, by northern military occupation of the South. One result of this encounter was that geographical difference between North and South became shorthand for cultural difference between northerners and southerners. And as part of that cultural difference, it was imagined that northerners were more liberal and therefore more secular, while southerners more religious and therefore more conservative. The terms of difference that defined the self were mirrored in the other. Taking part in this mythic narration of regional difference in U.S. history, scholars have generally assumed that there was not secularism in the South, beyond that which the North enforced upon it. But in fact, the South did have its own variant of secularism, which was in spatial terms made in the inverse of northern secularism. That is, southern whites operated their own regional variant of secularism that shared many of the same structural principles of the northern brand of secularism accounted for by Fessenden and others, but did not share the same religious history. In the South, evangelical Protestantism, and not liberal Protestantism, wrote the historical terms of secularism. As a result, secularism in the American South was defined by a local politics of spatial segregation that was ultimately a religious expression of racial difference. That is to say that the universalizing notions of southern secularism were inseparable from the local realities of Jim Crow racial order. By contrast, as noted above, a liberal Protestantism that was coterminous with a “Protestant-secular” continuum defined a northern variety of American secularism. Lastly, these two regional variants of American secularism developed in relation to one another, as both defined themselves in opposition to the other, with the result that the secularism of northern liberals officially triumphed in its legal transcendence of institutional slavery at the end of the Civil War, but southern evangelicals, once rejoined with the nation, infused in its institutions provided the ever-shifting strategies for protecting racial difference as a divinely sanctioned spatial order.20

Scholars who emphasize a more totalizing view of secularism argue, however, that such variations are best understood as particular parts of a much larger harmonious whole, one in which the very idea of difference is defined by an ever converging singularizing discourse. Anthropologist Ashley Lebner, for example, has argued that emphasizing varieties of secularism, or arguing that there are multiple secularisms, detracts from the interpretive focus of post-colonial scholar Talal Asad, who has influenced secular studies in the United States as elsewhere, on the universalizing project of secularism in the West. Lebner notes that Saba Mahmood, a student of Asad, has argued that scholars often imagine “multiple secularisms” as “a deviation from Western modes of secularism or as a local and regional story that adds little to its conceptual formulation.” What Lebner highlights of Mahmood is the central concern to better understand how the spatial rupture between “the West” and “the rest” not only subjugates non-Western peoples and places as territorial subjects of colonial conquest, to be compared as particular deviations from the universalizing West, but how this categorical constructing and classificatory comparison also “affects the West.” In other words, the ongoing challenge for secular studies scholars is to particularize the universal (by describing in Asadian terms the specificity of secular formations) while universalizing the particular (by showing how such specificity, in Durkheimian terms, is a microcosm of an increasingly global secular society). This is a theoretical riddle to be sure, one that continues to baffle scholars as they try to make sense of Asad, Mahmood, and those who position their religious subjects as simultaneously inside and outside Western secularity, as one of “us” but still unapproachably “other.”21

Again, however, it is important to emphasize that even these revised approaches to secularism outside the United States continue to use the same spatial divisions of nation-state differentiation assumed in classical secularization theory. Asad, in fact, writes the nation-state into his definition of secularism as a political doctrine that posits the state as the transcendent mediator of religious difference. Further, he interprets in spatial terms the difference between religious practices before secular formation, and religious beliefs after secular formation. For example, he argues that prior to the use of Higher Biblical Criticism, “when the [Christian] devotee heard God speak [in the recitation of the text], there was a sensuous connection between inside and outside, a fusion between signifier and signified.” But “in contrast,” Asad writes, “the mythic method used by the Higher Biblical Criticism rendered the materiality of scriptural sounds and marks into a spiritual power whose effect was generated entirely within the subject as believer independent of the senses.” With these temporal and spatial distinctions between a prior moment when inside and outside were fused together, and a later moment when inside and outside were bifurcated, Asad shows how the idea of the secular has a history, and how that idea cannot do without religion, as something set apart and distant. What Asad attempts, which is similar to historian of religions David Chidester’s approach to comparative religion (which proposes that scholars should classify classification), is to map the mapping, in order to show how it was specifically enacted as political territory. The assumption remains—as it was with Weber and classical secularization theorists—that what people thought about their thinking determined the direction of their history. But readers are left to wonder, as they may wonder when they read Weber, exactly how much of the story actually happened, and whether, like liberal Protestant adaptations of Higher Biblical Criticism, its actual occurrence matters at all, because at this point we have accepted the political power of the myth, even as we have accepted the theological limits of its historically factual content.22

Taking a wide and long view, secularization theorists ultimately are focused broadly on the historical formation of spatial relations—between religion and not-religion, dominant and subordinate religions—in the modern nation-state. Because of this, they often struggle to make sense of the religious practices and beliefs of particular people in specific places. In attempting to account for this struggle, and to see both the macro and the micro levels, sociologist Courtney Bender has invited scholars to examine how the religious and the secular are co-constructed categories, and to recognize the agency of practitioners to participate in the social construction of the classificatory systems that they use to make meaning out of life and to locate themselves in their societies, their nation-states, and the world. The practitioners do not make their categories whole cloth, and the nation-state plays a significant role in regulating the very materials of their local production. But they have yet to account for the ways in which social groups at the local level enact the structuring structures of secularism. Addressing this scholarly deficit and its spatial dimensions promises to engage future scholars of secularization and secularism. For secularization theory and studies of secularism rely conceptually on spatial distinctions between religion and non-religion. These spatial distinctions include: the “West” versus the “rest,” as classical secularization theory places religious enchantment outside the “West” and “discovers” it through colonial encounters with primitive peoples: Church versus State, as secularization theory begins in Europe with expropriation of church property, and disestablishment marks origin of secularization narrative in the United States; Inward versus Outward, as secularization is built on a particularly Protestant problem of this-worldly and otherworldly dispositions, a distinction which makes possible the notion of a differentiation of spheres, which render totalizing religion impossible, and this problem of modern faith/belief is the placeholder of current conversation on secularism; and in the racial terms of white versus non-white, as secularism in the United States is predicated on spatial distinctions of racial segregation.

Review of the Literature

The majority of recent literature on secularization and secularism in the United States begins with the question, “What does it mean to say we live in a secular age?,” posed by philosopher Charles Taylor in his magisterial A Secular Age. Whereas classical secularization theorists focused on whether or not religion could survive modern life, contemporary theorists already assume that religion is here to stay, focusing instead on how secularism reconfigures the limits of religion, the range of religious practice, and the idea of religious difference, within the sovereign boundaries of the secular state. Taylor was motivated to solve what for him is a self-evident historical theological problem: why was it impossible for those in the Middle Ages to not believe in God, but now, this side of modernity, belief in God is but one option among many? To answer that question Taylor tacks back and forth between philosophical reflection and social scientific explanation. The major influence of his approach is to recover the philosophical side of classical secularization theorists, particularly Max Weber. Up until the 2007 publication of A Secular Age, secularization theory was primarily the domain of sociology departments who trained students to measure the interpretive efficacy through quantitative studies. With the influence of that publication, along with Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption also published that year, there was renewed interest in secularization theory within the discipline of Religious Studies, particularly within the field of American religious history. One can see this impact most directly in The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, an online publication platform sponsored by the Social Scientific Research Council. The title of the publication is taken directly from Taylor’s book, and it was founded in 2007 as a forum to discuss A Secular Age. As it has evolved, one can see the continued influence of Taylor’s work in the articles and posts, which take up topics of political theology, disenchantment, public religion, state sovereignty, religion and law, and religious difference, among other things. As signaled by the title, the common assumption of the publication is the idea that the secular state defines what Taylor referred to as “a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world, over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.”23 To get a sense of the current state of the literature, The Immanent Frame is the best starting point, as its contributors include the key theorists of secularization and secularism in North America. Within this literature, three new areas of research have emerged, focused on the rise of spirituality, consumer religion, and racial difference in relation to secularism. Representative works for these areas include Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination, Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, and Jonathan Kahn and Vincent Lloyd’s edited volume, Race and Secularism in America.24

Further Reading

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

    Bender, Courtney. The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:

      Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy. New York: Anchor, 1967.Find this resource:

        Berger, Peter L., Jonathan Sacks, David Martin, Tu Weiming, George Weigel, Grace Davie, and Abdullahi A. An-Naim, eds. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999.Find this resource:

          Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. Rethinking Secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

            Fessenden, Tracy. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

              Hammond, Phillip E. Religion and Personal Autonomy: The Third Disestablishment in America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. “Religion and Modernity in the French Context: For a New Approach to Secularization.” Sociological Analysis 51 (1990): S15–25.Find this resource:

                  Jakobsen, Janet R., and Ann Pellegrini. Secularisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                    Kahn, Jonathan, and Vincent Lloyd, eds. Race and Secularism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                      Lofton, Kathryn. Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                        Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                          Modern, John Lardas. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                            Smith, Christian. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                              Smith, Christian. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                                  Warner, Michael, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig J. Calhoun. Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                                    Warner, R. Stephen. A Church of Our Own: Disestablishment and Diversity in American Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.Find this resource:


                                      (1.) Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 107.

                                      (2.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1930); Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993); and Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 43.

                                      (3.) James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 131.

                                      (4.) Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 133.

                                      (5.) Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

                                      (6.) Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Robert N. Bellah and Steven M Tipton, eds. The Robert Bellah Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); and Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

                                      (7.) Peter L Berger, Jonathan Sacks, David Martin, Tu Weiming, George Weigel, Grace Davie, and Abdullahi A. An-Naim, eds. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999); and R. Stephen Warner, “Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 98 (March 1993): 1044–1093.

                                      (8.) Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

                                      (9.) Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 106.

                                      (10.) Smith, American Evangelicalism, 106.

                                      (11.) R. Stephen Warner, A Church of Our Own: Disestablishment and Diversity in American Religion (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

                                      (12.) Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Prema Kurien, “Becoming American by Becoming Hindu,” in Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, eds. R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 37–70; and Phillip E. Hammond, Religion and Personal Autonomy: The Third Disestablishment in America (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992).

                                      (13.) Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

                                      (14.) Richard Hughes Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

                                      (15.) Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Richard Hughes Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

                                      (16.) Arthur E. Farnsley, II, N. J. Demerath III, Etan Diamond, and Mary L. Mapes, Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Nancy L. Eiesland and R. Stephen Warner, “Ecology: Seeing the Congregation in Context,” in Studying Congregations, eds. Nancy T. Ammerman and William McKinney (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 40–77; Penny Becker, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999); and Nancy Ammerman, Congregation and Community (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

                                      (17.) Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 4; and William R. Hutchison, ed. Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900–1960 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

                                      (18.) John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 74.

                                      (19.) Charles McCrary and Jeffrey Wheatley, “The Protestant Secular in the Study of American Religion: Reappraisal and Suggestions,” Religion (October 2016): 1–21.

                                      (20.) Chad E. Seales, The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                      (21.) Ahsley Lebner, “Race, Space, Secularism, and the Writing of History,” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 77 (2017): 118–126.

                                      (22.) Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); and David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa, Studies in Religion and Culture (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991).

                                      (23.) Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

                                      (24.) Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); and Jonathan Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).