James Emmett Ryan
Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literatureby Tracy Fessenden
Many Americans wish to believe that the United States, founded in religious tolerance, has gradually and naturally established a secular public sphere that is equally tolerant of all religions--or none. Culture and Redemption suggests otherwise. Tracy Fessenden contends that the uneven separation of church and state in America, far from safeguarding an arena/i>
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Many Americans wish to believe that the United States, founded in religious tolerance, has gradually and naturally established a secular public sphere that is equally tolerant of all religions--or none. Culture and Redemption suggests otherwise. Tracy Fessenden contends that the uneven separation of church and state in America, far from safeguarding an arena for democratic flourishing, has functioned instead to promote particular forms of religious possibility while containing, suppressing, or excluding others. At a moment when questions about the appropriate role of religion in public life have become trenchant as never before, Culture and Redemption radically challenges conventional depictions--celebratory or damning--of America's "secular" public sphere.
Examining American legal cases, children's books, sermons, and polemics together with popular and classic works of literature from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, Culture and Redemption shows how the vaunted secularization of American culture proceeds not as an inevitable by-product of modernity, but instead through concerted attempts to render dominant forms of Protestant identity continuous with democratic, civil identity. Fessenden shows this process to be thoroughly implicated, moreover, in practices of often-violent exclusion that go to the making of national culture: Indian removals, forced acculturations of religious and other minorities, internal and external colonizations, and exacting constructions of sex and gender. Her new readings of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Stowe, Twain, Gilman, Fitzgerald, and others who address themselves to these dynamics in intricate and often unexpected ways advance a major reinterpretation of American writing.
James Emmett Ryan
Tracy Fessenden has written a provocative, learned, and timely study, one which is daring in its scope and complexity. It questions many of our most common assumptions about the relations between the secular and the religious in American life, and in so doing, helps us understand why we don't think twice when the band strikes up 'Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,' but probably should.
Nicolas S. Witschi
Candy Gunther Brown
Jeffrey D. Groves
Peter Kerry Powers
W. Clark Gilpin
Finalist for the 2007 First Book Prize, Berkshire Conference
"Interdisciplinary in its methods and broad in its reach, Culture and Redemption focuses on literary and non-literary texts drawn from three centuries of American history in order to follow the evolving fates of Protestantism in the national conversation."James Emmett Ryan, Journal of American History
"Tracy Fessenden has written a provocative, learned, and timely study, one which is daring in its scope and complexity. It questions many of our most common assumptions about the relations between the secular and the religious in American life, and in so doing, helps us understand why we don't think twice when the band strikes up 'Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,' but probably should."Tara Fitzpatrick, Journal of Law and Religion
"If by the end [of this book] you have not learned to read again (to think again) about such lofty suspects as democratization, feminization, and, yes, even that old warthog, secularization, then you have missed an opportunity to read, to read intensely, something that truly earns such reading. Fessenden's aesthetic agility offers literary enticement and intellectual transparency. . . . [The book] instructs through its readable prose and critical assimilations, allowing the reader to review the author's interpretations alongside their posited evidence. It is this textual transparence that makes Culture and Redemption not merely provocative, but also prescriptive."Kathryn Lofton, Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"Fessenden's readings of religion challenge much critical complacency about race, gender, class, and ethnicity but at the same time never reduce religion to an epiphenomenon of these other categories. This is a book that absolutely must be read and contended with by all serious scholars of American culture."Michael Kaufmann, American Literature
"A highly learned, intricately nuanced, and breathtakingly sweeping account of the role that religion has played in the culture of the United States from the early settlements of New England to the post-9/11 world of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. . . . [T]o read this book closely is to find oneself shuttling back and forth between a sense of amazement at the power of its critical argument and one of astonishment at the brio of its interpretive aplomb. . . . [A]n elegant, intelligent book."Roger Lundin, Religion and Literature
"A fascinating, wideranging study of the extent to which an ostensibly secular society in the United States is the product not of the successful separation of church and state but rather of the often troubling but pervasive imposition of a particular and often exclusionary Protestant notion of democratic identity. Fessenden maps out a cultural history in which religion does not disappear from life so much as disappear into it."Nicolas S. Witschi, American Literary Scholarship
Culture and Redemption offers a persuasive and much-needed explanation of how secularism has functioned and indeed continues to function in American society. Fessenden proposes that the narrative of secularism maintains such a stronghold on cultural and scholarly imaginaries that Americanists have been at a loss to explain the evangelical presence in politics or an American culture so seemingly bifurcated between religious conservatives and secular liberals."Sarah Rivett, Religion
"Using literature as a window into culture, Fessenden succeeds in provoking and invigorating rethinking of the never simple relationships among religion, race, secularism, and the contours of American Democracy."Candy Gunther Brown, Church History
"A tour de force stretching from colonization to the 1920s, [this book] carefully balances overtly religious material with fictions whose theological valences are often overlooked. [It] is a comprehensive vision of just how deep the roots of US 'civil religion' go, a term coined by Robert Bellah in 1967, but here revealed as the culmination of a long-standing national binary not only between the religious and the secular but more specifically between Protestantism and anti-Protestantism."Everett Hamner, Literature and Theology
"While the primary audience for this book is academic, Fessenden's insights have import for larger cultural discussions of religion's place in American life, a point she reinforces in her introduction, with some brief attention to the 'newly emboldened Christian right,' and in her coda in which she considers the future possibilities for religious dissent and the exportation through our foreign policy of essentially Protestant American values' that attempt 'to ensure religious freedom and eradicate conflict by confining religion to a privatized sphere.' Culture and Redemption is a book of moment, and readers will find Fessenden's treatment of secularism and American literature eye opening."Jeffrey D. Groves, Journal of Church and State
"At a time when scholars, journalists, and the wider public are focusing their attention on the overt political and social 'intrusions' of religious groups into public and private life, Fessenden has unearthed a hidden history of powerful connections, transformations, and syntheses between the religious and the secular. In so doing, she opens a promising and suggestive agenda for American religious and literary scholarship."W. Clark Gilpin, The Journal of Religion
"For many commentaries on American religion and politics, it is an axiom that the line that demarcates the religious from the secular is blurry. Many of these discussions presume that this normative and analytic blurriness comes with the difficulty of attaining neutrality on religious matters. Tracy Fessenden's Culture and Redemption advances a subtle and nuanced set of interpretations of secular tropes in American literature that offers a more complex take on what is at stake in the rhetoric of religious neutrality. In this collection of perceptive and insightful essays on subjects that range from the colonial period to the twentieth century, Fessenden does not propose a new way to clarify the boundaries between religion and the secular. Rather, she considers the institutional and discursive conditions under which it is useful for powerful groups to be able to identify certain beliefs, practices, and forms of identification as religiously neutral."Finbarr Curtis, H-Net Reviews
"[A] clear and compelling overview. . . . [R]ich and provocative. . . . [F]orthrightly articulated. . . . [This is an] ambitious, eloquent, and engrossing study, one which should impel all Americanists to reconsider how they approach their field."Farrell O'Gorman, Christianity and Literature
"[This is a book that] deserves a great deal of careful attention. . . . Since religion is againif it ever ceased to beone of the most difficult and important areas of cultural and political conflict, it is incumbent upon all of us to develop a politics and a cultural analysis sophisticated enough to engage this conflict anew. Fessenden's work is an important contribution to such an effort."Peter Kerry Powers, Christian Scholar's Review
"[B]rilliant . . . the beginning of what promises to become a massive revision of those many canonical histories that have inadequately documented the twentieth-century's overwhelming debt to religion and its seemingly secular present."Michael Lackey, Modern Fiction Studies
"Drawing on the methodologies of literary, cultural, and religious studies, while maintaining commendable sensitivity to historical context, Fessenden has written a fascinating meditation on the ways in which particular forms of Protestant thought have come to dominate, not just the religious culture of America, but also the tenor of American secularity. . . . This is an important and, in the best sense of the word, imaginative book."Brian Ward, American Nineteenth Century History
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Culture and RedemptionReligion, the Secular, and American Literature
By Tracy Fessenden
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionI DISCOVERED early in my work on this book that the short answer I usually gave to the polite question of what I was writing about-"American literature and secularization"-invariably failed to conjure, in the listener's imagination, a vivid panorama of persons, events, and literary works that might unfold under that rubric. (I typically drew a puzzled silence, followed quickly by a compassionate redirection of the conversation along different lines.) But neither did the alternate answer I sometimes gave to the same question-"American literature and religion"-succeed any more in conveying a world of vibrant and many-layered possibility, beyond eliciting, now and then, a follow-up question about the Puritan divines.
Nor did such responses come quite as a surprise. The assumption that the "secular" consists simply in the unremarkable absence of once-dominant "religion" has shaped both American literary history and American religious history, the two fields this book moves freely between, as well as the smaller subfield that bills itself "religion and literature," where it had its beginnings in a vague dissatisfaction with the way that relationship was configured within the discipline of religiousstudies. According to the institutional genealogy given by Giles Gunn, for example, critical interest in the "coalescence of the literary and the religious" took shape in the nineteenth century as the attempt to "reconstitute something admittedly in a state of collapse"-that is, religion-"on a different basis." Such figures as Matthew Arnold, says Gunn, took it upon themselves to "keep alive a sense of the normative and its bearing upon beliefs and practices no longer felt to derive their legitimacy from traditional religious sources." Arnold famously relocated religion's powers of legitimation to "culture," intimating the supersession of religion by great works of imaginative literature and other, erstwhile secular forms-a shift given theological endorsement in the last century by Paul Tillich, among others. Far from attending to the presence of religion in literary contexts, then, students of religion-and-literature learned instead to seek after its absence, its displacement by or reconstitution as the newly empowered secular, freed from the trappings of ritual, the limitations of historical communities, or the embarrassments of outmoded belief.
Religion-and-literature in this way played its role in upholding what Robert Orsi calls the "embedded moral schema" that has long governed the academic study of religion, a discipline organized, says Orsi, "around the (usually hidden and unacknowledged) poles of good religion/bad religion." "Good" religion is good in the measure that it tends toward invisibility, or at least unobtrusiveness: "rational, word-centered, nonritualistic, middle class, unemotional, compatible with democracy and the liberal state ... [good religion] was what was taught and endorsed in academic environments; for everything else the discipline developed a nomenclature of marginalization (cults, sects, primitives, and so on)." For its part, the study of American religious history promoted a developmental narrative in which "good" religion emerges hand in hand with the new nation as a uniquely American achievement, the Puritans' sense of chosenness democratized and domesticated by Enlightenment tolerance, with the blessings of free exercise extended most liberally to matters of privately held belief and not to those allegedly irrational, regressive, or inscrutable forms of religious life-cults, sects, primitives, and so on-deemed foreign to democracy.
The salutary transparency of good religion and the attribution of antidemocratic leanings to any other kind made it inevitable that, beyond the discipline of religious studies (and frequently enough within it), all visible forms of religion might easily be regarded as irrational, regressive, and threatening to the democratic project. Particularly in American literary studies, a field historically given shape by its own narrative of democratization, religion receives little attention except when it figures as crucial to a progressive, emancipatory politics (Christian antislavery being the readiest example), and often not even then. Secularism enters into American literary studies as both a historical assumption (religion figures only minimally in the development of American literature, and less so over time) and a critical practice (religion therefore fails to warrant the kinds of attention we give to other social formations in American literary history, including gender, race, sexuality, and class).
However distorting a lens for reading this history, secularism flourishes as an operative rubric in American literary studies because it appears to be the best answer to the limitations ascribed to religion. Thus when a hero of American literary studies' own formative narrative of democracy-a Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example-is discovered to align himself with a social-evolutionary paradigm of race (as when Emerson confesses his conviction that African and Indian races are destined not to "progress" but to disappear), alarms are sounded and the work of exposure or exculpation begins, but when the same figure is seen to align himself with a social-evolutionary paradigm of religion (as when Emerson notes easily that Roman Catholicism, too, is destined to disappear), no such expiatory labors are called into play. And this is so because the assumption that some religions or aspects of religion have simply played themselves out, or ought to, or eventually will, is crucial to the developmental schema of good and bad religion-the first associated with freedom and enlightenment, the second with coercion and constraint-implicit in the progress narrative of democracy.
Of course one may well share Emerson's discomfort with the kind of religious authority he identified with the Catholic Church, which seems a very different thing from wishing to see some races evolve out of existence. To question the secularization narrative, moreover, is to risk appearing to advocate an expanded role for religion at a moment when a newly emboldened Christian right seems bent on remaking the erstwhile secular domains of science and law in its image. (With blessings from a president who urges that "both sides" of the alleged controversy over evolution be taught in schools, for example, the Kansas Board of Education voted in November 2005 to amend its official definition of science to accommodate supernatural explanations; eleven months earlier the Bush administration had filed a legal brief on behalf of the Kentucky counties prohibited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit from posting framed copies of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, alongside a proclamation from President Ronald Reagan marking 1983 as the Year of the Bible. "Official acknowledgement and recognition of the Ten Commandments' influence on American legal history," the White House assures any doubters in the brief, "comport with the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment].")
But consider how a simplified narrative of secularization may in fact work to strengthen the hold of a particular strain of conservative Christianity in American public life. When secularism in the United States is understood merely as the absence of religious faith, or neutrality in relation to religious faith, rather than as a variety of possible relationships to different religious traditions-for example, an avowedly secular United States is broadly accommodating of mainstream and evangelical Protestantism, minimally less so of Catholicism, unevenly so of Judaism, much less so of Islam, perhaps still less so of Native American religious practices that fall outside the bounds of the acceptably decorative or "spiritual"-then religion comes to be defined as "Christian" by default, and an implicit association between "American" and "Christian" is upheld even by those who have, one imagines, very little invested in its maintenance. So pervasive is the identification of religion in America with this unmarked Christianity, even among ardent secularists, that the debate about whether and how to teach about religions in public schools, for example, routinely reverts to a version of the debate between "evolution" and "creationism," between an Enlightenment faith that subordinates all religions to an allegedly disinterested rationality and a conservative Protestant rereading of a Jewish text that eclipses at once the Jewishness of Genesis, different religious perspectives on Genesis, and the multiplicity of religious narratives of origin. How have specific forms of Protestant belief and practice come enduringly to be subsumed under the heading of "Christian"-to the exclusion of non-Protestant and differently Protestant ways of being Christian- and how, in many cases, does the "Christian" come to stand in for the "religious" to the exclusion of non-Christian ways of being religious? Part of the answer surely lies in the ability of a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both the religious and the secular. "What has often been forgotten," Max Weber reminds us, is "that the Reformation meant not the elimination of the Church's control over everyday life, but rather the substitution of a new form of control for the previous one. It meant the repudiation of a control that was very lax, at that time scarcely perceptible in practice and hardly more than formal in favor of a regulation of the whole conduct which, penetrating all departments of private and public life, was infinitely burdensome and earnestly enforced." Evacuating religious authority from its institutional locations, the Reformation generated its presence "everywhere," not least in secular guise-an outcome, it further bears reminding, given as "truth" or "freedom" in the measure that the Reformation frames its program as liberation from the errors and superstitions of Rome. In this sense Protestantism's emancipation from Catholicism both provides the blueprint for, and sets the limits of, secularism's emancipation from "religion" itself.
Far from being a neutral matrix, then, the secular sphere as constituted in American politics, culture, and jurisprudence has long been more permeable to some religious interventions than to others. The co-implication of secularism and Reformed Christianity has meant, for example, that Christian religious polemic could remain compatible with America's vaunted history of religious liberty and toleration by being cast in strictly secular terms. Thus at various points in American history, Muslims, Catholics, or Mormons could be construed as enemies of republican institutions, Jews as a racial or economic threat, and Native American ritual practice as an affront to environmental or drug policy, all without apparent violence to cherished notions of religious freedom. At the same time, an implicitly Christian culture puts pressure on all who make claims on American institutions to constitute themselves as religious on a recognizably Protestant model. (Recall the all-but-mandatory confessions of faith in the last several presidential elections, or the more recent calls of party leaders for Democrats to "get religion" in the wake of their 2004 defeat by a Republican campaign emphasizing conservative Christian values.) Protests against such public displays of Christianity from secularists, meanwhile, are unlikely to create favorable conditions for the expression of other forms of religious knowledge, leaving the forum- discussions of the meaning of "faith-based," for example-entirely to those who lay claim to it.
To consider the career of secularization in American culture is therefore also necessarily to consider the consolidation of a Protestant ideology that has grown more entrenched and controlling even as its manifestations have often become less visibly religious. Charting the American religious landscape in terms of "manyness" and "oneness," religious historian Catherine Albanese unflinchingly identifies "public Protestantism" as the "one religion" of the United States, a dominant if tacit "religious system" that gives "cultural cohesion [to] American society" over time by eliciting and shaping "the religious adaptations of even the most 'other' of new Americans." "Although many times they were unaware of it," says Albanese, "Catholics and Jews, Buddhists and Eastern Orthodox Christians" were induced or compelled to assimilate themselves to Protestant norms in order to be recognized as legitimately American. "So [were] countless others from among the many." Other American religious historians have clamored over the last decade or two to tell any story but this one. To judge from recent textbooks and anthologies, the classic narrative of American religious history as one of ever-expanding "tolerance" and "accommodation" radiating from a Protestant center is rapidly losing ground to what historian David Hackett calls "a multicultural tale of Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and other[s]" told by scholars whose work "cut[s] across boundaries of gender, class, and region." But if, as Hackett suggests, the "older, Protestant consensus narrative has, at best, come to be seen as a convenient fiction for the sake of narrative movement," that discovery by itself does little to explain how the "convenient fiction" became so powerful and enduring, nor why it remains so ingeniously difficult to counter. Even as the story of persecution-fleeing Puritans and their more broadly Protestant legacy of religious freedom gives way to a more varied and inclusive story of America's religious development (as scholars now work "conscientiously, often feverishly," William Hutchison attests, "to chronicle diversities that our predecessors ignored or slighted"), the metanarrative of ever-increasing "tolerance" remains intact.
To put this in a different idiom: the patriarchal deity of Hebrew and Christian scripture may well be regarded as a narrative fiction, but one that a global move to inclusive-language biblical scholarship would by itself do nothing even to read, much less to unwrite. I agree therefore with Hutchison that to tell the story of America's religious development without locating the "enormously dominant and influential Protestant establishment" at its center is in fact to tell a different story, one that could scarcely be called a history of American religion. I do so, however, in order to ask how North Atlantic Protestants came to place themselves at this center, how the "convenient fiction" of a Protestant consensus at the heart of American culture came to take on the status of truth. This book seeks to demonstrate, then, how particular forms of Protestantism emerged as an "unmarked category" in American religious and literary history, in order also to show how a particular strain of post-Protestant secularism, often blind to its own exclusions, became normative for understanding that history. Part 1 of this book, "Protestantism and the Social Space of Reading," reflects on those literary works and reading practices by which Protestant culture in America became entrenched, serving, in Andrew Ross's phrase, as "bearers and shapers of a language that makes some forms of discursive experience available while it ignores, excludes, or suppresses others." Setting the institutionalization of literacy and the emergence of a distinctive national literature in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century America alongside more visible projects of Anglo-Protestant consolidation and expansion, these chapters argue that what religious historian Nathan Hatch calls the "democratization of American Christianity" and literary historian Cathy Davidson the "democratization of the written word" proceeded together, less toward the end of generalized equality than toward particular distributions of knowledge, mobility, and cultural authority.
Excerpted from Culture and Redemption by Tracy Fessenden Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Tracy Fessenden is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Women's and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. She is the coeditor of The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature.
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