Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism

Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism

by Peter Coviello

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From the perspective of Protestant America, nineteenth-century Mormons were the victims of a peculiar zealotry, a population deranged––socially, sexually, even racially––by the extravagances of belief they called “religion.” Make Yourselves Gods offers a counter-history of early Mormon theology and practice, tracking the Saints from their emergence as a dissident sect to their renunciation of polygamy at century’s end.
Over these turbulent decades, Mormons would appear by turns as heretics, sex-radicals, refugees, anti-imperialists, colonizers, and, eventually, reluctant monogamists and enfranchised citizens. Reading Mormonism through a synthesis of religious history, political theology, native studies, and queer theory, Peter Coviello deftly crafts a new framework for imagining orthodoxy, citizenship, and the fate of the flesh in nineteenth-century America. What emerges is a story about the violence, wild beauty, and extravagant imaginative power of this era of Mormonism—an impassioned book with a keen interest in the racial history of sexuality and the unfinished business of American secularism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226474472
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/14/2019
Series: Class 200: New Studies in Religion
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Peter Coviello is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His books include Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America and Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs.

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Secularism


THE WORK OF Make Yourselves Gods mixes, somewhat promiscuously, argument and presumption. In the previous pages I have tried to lay out some of what the book contends, chiefly about Mormonism but more largely about secularism as it gathers strength and coherence across the American nineteenth century. Taking up the nineteenth-century Mormons as an exemplary case, the book examines how a style of liberal discipline, fusing race and sex and devotionality, came to be materialized in the context of an escalatingly biopoliticized secularity. More broadly still, Make Yourselves Gods aims to contribute to the ongoing critical conversation about the world-shattering force of what we know, in shorthand, as "1492," and about its enduring afterlives in North America. For this is the context in which Christianity itself was folded into the imperial domination of the globe, with the result that the languages a distinctively Christian secularism came to speak — about race and sex and property but also about freedom, tolerance, autonomy, and much else — would be suffused with the imperatives of a planetary theo-racial domination. Or so, in the work of scholars from Sylvia Wynter and Walter Mignolo to Edward Said, Hortense Spillers, and contemporaries like Tomoko Masuzawa and Jared Hickman, we have come to learn. As Gil Anidjar puts it, with syllogistic compression: "Orientalism is secularism, and secularism is Christianity."

Even to begin to pursue such expansive claims as these, though, is to put oneself in colloquy with a tremendous volume of accumulated scholarship. One speaks, necessarily, in and through the critical vernaculars established over several generations of historical and historiographic reconsideration, genealogical critique, methodological clarification, and conceptual polemicizing. The very notion of "secularism" condenses these many established traditions of analysis, acting as a potent crossing-point between their varied articulations. In consequence of this, it is an especially fractious sort of concept, susceptible to blurring at the margins, and alive with an internal dissensus brewed up across multiple scenes of inquiry, with their divergent idioms, norms, and presumptions. This is part (though only part) of what Hussein Ali Agrama means when, borrowing a note from David Scott, he describes secularism as a "problem-space" — a scene of distinctions being insisted upon, instantiated, and unraveled, with perplexing velocity. The problem-space of secularism, on this accounting, is one of constant flux and adjustment (where the edges of pluralistic "tolerance" are forever encountering, and rationalizing, what lies beyond), requiring of its observers in turn a recursive, seemingly never-ending labor of calibration. These are not processes to which we can, once and for all, call halt, in some magisterial gesture of summary comprehension. (Given the nature of its object, the work of "secular critique," as John Modern has recently put it, "cannot be reduced to exposure, to greater clarity about how things are in essence.") But this does not mean a clarification of terms is not in order, or without use.

Since so many of my own grounding presumptions reside exactly here, in these conjoined historical and thickly conceptual senses of "secularism," I want now to begin the work of the book by offering a small genealogy — inexhaustive, to be sure — of secularism as a mobile, many-voiced critical formulation. In walking, chamber by chamber, through the handful of works and of thinkers that have most given shape to "secularism" as I understand it, my aim is, in the first instance, to make some of these presumptions explicit. But the larger hope is that, in dwelling in the details of this capsule genealogy, we might also begin to establish a shared set of terms, some transferable and adaptive idioms for work that, while traversing these several disciplines, converges around the matter of secularism. What follows is a preliminary effort in that direction: an attempt to articulate a portable analytic vocabulary — some axioms for secularism, and for postsecular critique — that might be of use even in respect to scenes far afield of nineteenth-century Mormonism.

Fair warning, though: it is likely that a few of the following points will seem to some readers obvious enough not to require belaboring, while to others many of those same points will read as so counterintuitive, or unlikely, or perhaps even counterfactual, as to demand far more in the way of critical or historical substantiation. I can make no claim to be satisfying across all such readerly scenes. My inspiration here, as I have mentioned, comes from the luminous work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose seven axioms, in her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, many of us have long since been able to recite, catechism-like, by heart. Sedgwick frames her undertaking by noting that anyone doing queer scholarship, "in a culture where same-sex desire is still structured by its distinctive public/private status, at once marginal and central, as the open secret, discovers that the line between straining at truths that prove to be imbecilically self-evident, on the one hand, and on the other hand tossing off commonplaces that turn out to retain their power to galvanize and divide, is weirdly unpredictable." One governing presumption of Make Yourselves Gods is that secularism is so much a part of our untheorized and offhand real, so much the stuff of naturalized commonsense, that much of Sedgwick's dialectic between the startling and the "imbecilically self-evident" will obtain, if following out different lines of stress than those proper to queer theory. "Will they bore or will they shock?" Sedgwick wonders of her collection of "otherwise unarticulated assumptions and conclusions from a long-term project of antihomophobic analysis." I proceed here with a similarly eager uncertainty.

Axiom 1: Secularism is not hostile to "religion" as such.

Secularism is not that force or form of social ordering to which the religious is opposed (or spirituality, or devotion, or belief). Nor is it that which remains after the thoroughgoing derogation of religiosity in modern public life, and its replacement by the generous pluralism of state neutrality and official tolerance. Not the rationalized antidote to religion and its various orthodoxies, not the erosion of all possibilities for faith, secularism is, more properly, an orchestrated constellation of all these foregoing terms: an economy, then, that distributes them, and sets them in mutually explanatory relation to one another. In this, Charles Taylor — vexing though his work can be (of which more shortly) — is exactly and illuminatingly correct.

Taylor, in 2007, followed up his monumental Sources of the Self with the equally voluminous A Secular Age. We come at it now through the scrim of a decade's worth of veneration, appraisal, and — in dutiful turn — critique, but it's worth noting from the start the shape and the force of its polemic. In his account of the disciplinary efforts of early modern clerical elites, of their own elaboration of the spiritual principles of the saeculum and the broad consequences of these internal shifts in Latin Christendom, Taylor's book gives us abundant reason to mistrust accounts of the diminishment of religion after 1500 in, he says at the outset, "the West." He is interested, to be sure, in what happens after religion ceases to be (what he conceives to have been) a given, an unremarkable and in that respect largely uncritical component of mortal life, and becomes instead "an option," "one human possibility among others": a thing one might choose, or decline to choose, among an array of proliferating possibilities. But that proliferation is part of what matters so greatly to Taylor. For what he calls "the nova effect" describes, to the contrary, a spectacular multiplication of religiosities in the aftermath of this titanic shift in the environment of belief, this "fragilization" of all possibilities with respect to immanence and transcendence. And this (whatever we might say about Taylor's subsequent propositions about the "buffered self" in its "disenchanted world") is crucial: as José Casanova glosses the point, "Taylor challenges secularist prejudices that tend to understand the secular as merely the space left behind when this-worldly reality is emptied of religion or to view unbelief as resulting simply from the progress of science and rational inquiry." Hence Taylor's vigorous "polemic against 'subtraction stories,'" those many self-contented accounts of the alleged secularization of modernity that "treat the history of religion as the career of a mistake." Secularism as subtraction, as diminishment, as an overcoming of the merely or misbegottenly or benightedly "religious": these, Taylor helps us to see, are not credible accounts of modernity so much as they are stories moderns like to tell themselves, about themselves. (As Jordan Stein astutely turns the point, "The history of secularism is the history of a story we told, not of a thing that happened.") The matter is not merely that something called "secularization" has not in fact accomplished the diminishment or extirpation of religiosity in some neutral, numericized sense (though one could easily pursue that claim). It is rather that in its fragilization, what we know as "religion" has at once mutated and, in that mutation, found for itself a prodigious fecundity.

The condition of belief Taylor describes as definitive for a secular age that commences around 1500 thus does not cancel religion, or supersede it, or suppress it: it redefines and redistributes it. Given the "mutual exposure of the religious and the secular" — given the entangled processes by which the religious and the secular create one another — we do well, in the light of Taylor's analysis, to resist those visions of modernity that rush to declare "religion" that which has been vanquished, stifled, or otherwise starved of life. Religion flourishes in a secular age, and not as holdover, residue, or unconverted outside.

Axiom 2: Secularism's negative, its enemy, is not religion; it is bad belief.

Perhaps more acutely than any other scholar, Talal Asad has anatomized the constitution of "religion" as such not as against but in and through what he names the "doctrine called secularism." Working in an anthropological tradition of anticolonial critique and taking up "the shifting web of concepts making up the secular," Asad argues, in Formations of the Secular, that to grasp what secularism is, and to begin any genealogical accounting of its historicity and its force, one must grapple with the interlinked series of binarized distinctions it propagates. For these, as they twist and twine around one another, form something like the DNA of secularism, at least under the broad conditions of a solidifying liberalism that is Asad's object of analysis. Notably, these multiplying binaries are not propped upon a distinction between the religious and the nonreligious. "Religion," more precisely, is what secular distinction causes to appear as such.

How so? Asad begins by noting the "familiar oppositions" that "pervade modern secular discourse, especially in its polemical mode": he lists "belief and knowledge, reason and imagination, history and fiction, symbol and allegory, natural and supernatural, sacred and profane" (23). But what Asad's work goes on to delineate is not some authorizing shift in preference, over the course of the expansion of secular orders of power, from one side to the other in these binary pairs. He describes, rather, the deployment and solidification of a universalizing background against which these categories assemble themselves and come into their shifting relational value. That background provides the structuring grammar of secularism.

In Asad's reading, for instance, the way secular discourse establishes the primacy of something like "reason" is not by denigrating "faith," or not exactly; rather, secular discourse puts "faith" into circulation in constrained, bifurcated ways. This is what Nancy Bentley, in a trenchant phrase, names "the secularization two-step": she means the processes whereby a single cleavage — faith and reason, let's say — comes to be followed by a second-order distinction, in which the category leaning away from the secular is itself split and divided. From that division, that subsequent cleavage, a new set of distinctions emerges, in which the oppositional category (faith) is assembled into contrasting binarized versions of itself: into iterations that are ennobling or that do harm, that are civilizing or imbruting, that are tolerable or malign. So it is not the case that faith itself is necessarily backward or wrongheaded within secular conditions anchored in the primacy of reason. For there is a kind of faith that is tolerable and indeed welcome there: the faith that improves us, that leavens the pain of a coldly rational world, that makes us ethical, and caring, and sensitive. And there is also, correlatively, a negative version of faith, by which we can be deluded, steered away from the clarifying paths of the real, and drawn too far over into the antior nonreality of superstition. There is not, that is, a singular heroic reason, facing off against its maligned opponent, faith. There are, rather, reason and salving faith and their bad shadow, delusive or misbegotten faith. These are the mechanics of secular distinction.

The pairing of religion and secularism is, on Asad's account, perhaps the paradigmatic case of this procedure. So it is demonstrably not the case that "religion" has no place in the public life of modern democracies that understand themselves as secular and liberal; but this, for Asad, does not exemplify something like "tolerance" on the part of modern states. He argues rather that this distinction is superseded by a more important, more structurally determining one. For under the regime of secularism, Asad writes, only those religions that demonstrate themselves "consistent with the basic requirements of modern society, including democratic governance" can be tolerated, and indeed can count, as valid religion. More precisely: "Only religions that have accepted the assumptions of liberal discourse are being commended, in which tolerance is sought on the basis of distinctive relation between law and morality" (182, 183, emphasis added). This is what it means for Asad to say that in a secular world, "religion" names "everything the modern state can afford to let go." Or again: "From the point of view of secularism, religion has the option either of confining itself to private belief and worship or of engaging in public talk that makes no demands on life. In either case such religion is seen by secularism to take the form it should properly have. Each is equally the condition of its legitimacy" (147, 199). That makes no demands on life: in Asad's rendering, the secular state only "tolerates" that which does not present itself as a rival claimant, pursuing differing conceptions of the public, the private, the good, the necessary, and much besides. As he says at the outset, mapping out the sharply constrained forms of "tolerance" proper to secularism: "The secular state does not guarantee toleration; it puts into play different structures of ambition and fear" (8).

The salient distinction, under conditions of secularism as it has been fomented in and routed through the orders of political liberalism, is thus not between the religious and the nonreligious. It travels rather between those religions that adhere to the conventions of liberal polity (its socialities, its arrangements of publicity and privacy, its styles of embodiment) and those that do not. Those that do not, Asad argues, do not appear as "religion" at all, or at least not as legitimate religion. Rather, they appear as something intimately worse: a perversion of the properly private, morally persuasive (i.e., committedly nonviolent) character of religion. They appear, in all, as bad belief. These are, in the secular order of things, not really religions. For religion, true religion, good religion by the lights of secular distinction, is that which elevates us in virtue, teaches us compassion and forbearance, adheres us to senses of awe and wonder before the universe, organizes our charitable impulses, directs our ethical conflicts, nourishes our spirits. Whereas bad belief — and for Asad, the exemplifying twenty-first-century case is political Islam — spoils all this. In its departures from the frameworks of liberal being, as they are ratified by the social order and enforced by the state, bad belief depraves religion, turning it to malignant, intolerable use. Accordingly, and in the name and defense of "universalizing reason itself," it must be transformed, set right, corrected.


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Table of Contents

Prologue: Winter Quarters

Part One: Axiomatic
1              Introduction: What We Talk about When We Talk about Secularism

Part Two: Joy
2              Endless Felicity: The Radiant Body of Early Mormon Theology
3              Gods in Subjection: Women, Polygamy, and the Eternity of Sex

Part Three: Extermination
4              The Polygamist’s Complexion; or, The Book of Mormon Goes West
5              Wards and Sovereigns: Deviance and Dominion in the Biopolitics of Secularism

Part Four: Theodicy
6              Conclusion: Protohomonationalism


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