U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Christian American Exceptionalism in a Secular Age

Last week I posted my thoughts on Charles Taylor’s theory of multiculturalism—what he terms the “politics of recognition.” (My post: “When the Zulus Produce A Tolstoy We Will Read Him.”) This week, as promised, I continue engaging Charles Taylor with some preliminary thoughts on his 2007 tome, The Secular Age. My interests in Taylor are, of course, peculiar to my research about the U.S. culture wars. If you’d like more in-depth blogging on secularism’s relationship to religion and the public sphere, I highly recommend The Immanent Frame.

Although by accident, I could not have timed my reading of The Secular Age any better than I did, since it came during our roundtable discussion of David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. In his entry, Sehat responds to the charge that he had an uncritical attitude towards secularization by citing sociologist Mark Chaves. Sehat writes:

Chaves argues that secularization involves two distinct processes. The first is the differentiation of religion from other institutional structures such as government, education, or business. This differentiation of institutional structures is a mark of modernity. In other words, whereas in past ages governmental, religious, and business authorities might have been connected or combined in the king or prince or pope, modernity entails the division and separation of these various structures. Secularization then occurs as religious authority declines in scope, that is, as religious authority becomes increasingly confined into its own institutional sphere with less relevance for other institutional spheres. The key issue in this version of secularization theory is religious authority. Though many, many people may continue to believe or to practice various religious traditions, this fact is not relevant to the process of secularization, according to Chaves. By focusing on the scope and intensity of religious authority, Chaves offers a theory of secularization that focuses our attention not on the prevalence of individual belief but on the social significance of religion.

This explanation of secularization despite the persistence of religious belief coheres with Taylor’s thinking on the subject (and with a number of other thinkers, such as Stephen L. Carter, who argues in The Culture of Disbelief that the American public sphere is hostile to religiously informed action, despite the fact that well over 90% of Americans say they believe in God when polled). Taylor argues that the incommensurable steadfastness of religious belief in the United States lends credence to theories of American exceptionalism. The doggedness of religious belief amongst a vast majority of Americans in the secular age also helps explain the culture wars.

But first, let’s begin with how Taylor defines the secular age by three meanings:

1) Religion is not a state matter, but rather a private one.
2) Hardly anyone believes in God.
3) Religion is a choice, and not an easy one to make.

Obviously, these meanings are not all equally true everywhere. Though all are mostly true in western Europe, only meanings one and three make sense when discussing the United States, where the vast majority believes in God. As Taylor writes: “the United States is rather striking in this regard. One of the earliest societies to separate Church and State, it is also the Western society with the highest statistics for religious belief and practice” (2). Taylor stresses that being a believer in a secular age—and in a secular society (not all contemporary societies are secular, as Muslim nations make clear)—is different than being a believer prior to secularization, when belief was a given. Now, belief is a choice, and not always an easy one. In other words, the secular age is one of differentiated belief: “We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty” (11). In other words, belief (and unbelief) takes on new meaning in the secular age because we have passed from a “naïve” stage—where everyone automatically believed, because it was what people did, without question—to a “reflective” one—where people consciously think about how their lived experiences relate to the existence of God (or not).

Broadly, Taylor’s book is a polemic of sorts: he argues that the shift to secularism was not merely a history of “subtraction”—of people becoming disenchanted with God due to science and naturalistic explanations of creation and other phenomena. He thinks, rather, people found meaning or “fullness” in humanism—a humanism that had to be created, that wasn’t already fully formed. For this shift to happen it was “necessary to have confidence in our own powers of moral ordering” (27). As I have argued in an earlier post on secular humanism, the confidence in a human moral order, or even an immanent moral order, is the dogma underlying progressive pedagogy, and inasmuch as the public schools are secular and progressive, this dogma should be embraced as such by curriculum builders and educational theorists. In other words, religion should be engaged along these lines in our public schools, rather than ignored, which is current practice, and which confuses the very purpose of secular, progressive education.

Taylor’s analysis of secularization’s longue durée is interesting, though a little too abstract for my tastes. The book becomes more compelling by Chapter 13, which Taylor titles, in a nod to Lionel Trilling, “The Age of Authenticity”—about our current age, which he dates back to the postwar period, and marks more concretely with the cultural revolutions of the Sixties. He writes: “I believe, along with many others, that our North Atlantic civilization has been undergoing a cultural revolution in recent decades. The 60s provide perhaps the hinge moment, at least symbolically”—when expressive individualism or a “kind of self-orientation seems to have become a mass phenomenon” (473). More in the words of Taylor: “The causes cited for these changes are many: affluence and the continued extension of consumer life styles; social and geographic mobility; outsourcing and downsizing by corporations; new family patterns, particularly the growth of the two-income household, with the resulting overwork and burnout; suburban spread, whereby people often live, work, and shop in three separate areas; the rise of television, and others” (473). Taylor relates all of these developments to the seeming loss of community, and duly cites Robert Putnam, whose Bowling Alone heads up the “loss of community” canon (Rodgers’s Age of Fracture will no doubt join any such reading list).

This leads to a theoretical understanding of the source of the culture wars. It is against the era of expressive, individuated authenticity—“set in a wider critique of the buffered, discipline self; concerned above all with instrumental rational control” (476)—that conservatives revolt, both consciously and unconsciously. “The ideal [of expressive individualism], however distorted, is still powerful enough in a society like the U.S. to awaken strong resistance in certain quarters, and to be the object of what have been called ‘culture wars’” (478).

Taylor turns to Émile Durkheim to explain the different paradigms of how religion interacts with society, naming three social forms: paleo-Durkheimian, neo-Durkheimian, and post-Durkheimian (at the Immanent Frame, these typologies are criticized by Robert Bellah, who is otherwise a big fan of Taylor, calling A Secular Age one of the most important books he has ever read). In paleo-Durkheimian societies religion is embedded and undifferentiated, such as in premodern Europe. In neo-Durkheimian societies, of which the United States was arguably the first, religion is only partially embedded, but it still manages to express a larger national identity. Another word for this might be “civil religion” in that the religious form is semi-generic, does not bear on the everyday public practices of all citizens, but is still crucial to a coherent normative framework of citizenship. The post-Durkheimian society is the secular age, when religion is immanent. (As William James made clear in The Varieties of Religious Experience, written over a century ago, models for post-Durkheimian religious expression have long existed, even in the neo-Durkheimian United States.)

The United States culture wars pit neo-Durkheimians against post-Durkheimians. “In a sense,” Taylor writes, “part of what drove the Moral Majority and motivates the Christian Right in the U.S.A. is an aspiration to re-establish something of the fractured neo-Durkheimian understanding that used to define the nation, where being American would once more have a connection with theism, with being ‘one nation under God,’ or at least with the ethic which was interwoven with this.” But, and here’s the rub: “the very embattled nature of these attempts shows how we have slid out of the old dispensation”(488).

But what makes the United States exceptional relative to the other nations of the north Atlantic? (How lucky that one of our plenary sessions for the 2011 U.S. Intellectual History Conference will be on the topic of American Exceptionalism, featuring Eric Foner, Beth Bailey, Rogers Smith, and Michael Kazin. Only five days until the CFP deadline!) Taylor acknowledges that one of the hottest debates in secularization theory is over this question. He offers a few plausible answers. First off, historically, immigrants have found that integrating into the American mainstream is made easier through church attendance: “one can be integrated as an American through one’s faith or religious identity.” This explains divergent paths to modernity: whereas rural Sicilians who emigrated to the United States became more Catholic, rural southern Italians who emigrated to, say, Milan, usually become less religious, opting instead for the more common paths to assimilation there, typically through socialism or syndicalism.

Also, Taylor contends that the most important contemporary force for secularization is the modern academy. But although American academics are equally as secular as their western European counterparts, elite intellectual life does not influence the rest of American society the way it does in British or French or German societies. This is the old saw that Americans are less deferential, or in other terms, more anti-intellectual.

In explaining American exceptionalism, Taylor also builds on an argument made by Marx: that the ties of the church loosened in Europe because the state and church were so tightly wound that anticlericalism followed the age of revolution against monarchy. In contrast, since the United States never experienced such a paleo-Durkheimian phase, since it was always already neo-Durkheimian, there was never the urgent political need to revolt against formal religion. In contrast, religion often offered Americans apparent refuge from the intrusions of the state.

More compelling meta-analysis of American exceptionalism from Taylor: In European nations, any residual link between God and nation—the neo-Durkheimian society—was shattered by the trauma of World War I. But the United States never experienced such a trauma, at least not until the 1960s, when it experienced the combined shocks of a set of destabilizing forces—“the triple attack which the family-religion-patriotism complex of the 1950s suffered in the era of civil rights, Vietnam and the expressive revolution.” Taylor continues: “Was this not the analogue in the American case to the First World War for the British? Perhaps, but plainly not everyone sees it this way. Indeed, the different reactions to this era seem to underlie the ‘culture wars’ of contemporary U.S. politics. It seems that the fusion of faith, family values and patriotism is still extremely important to one half of American society, that they are dismayed to see it challenged, both in its central values (e.g., the fight over abortion or gay marriage), and in the link between their faith and the polity (fights over school prayer, the phrase ‘under God,’ and the like)” (527).

Of course, in spite of the trauma of Vietnam (and more recent traumas, Iraq and Afghanistan), the United States remains the most powerful nation in the world, which goes a long way in explaining the persistence of its civil religion, of its neo-Durkheimian state. “It is easier to be unreservedly confident in your own rightness when you are the hegemonic power. The skeletons [in the closet] are there, but they can be resolutely ignored, in spite of the efforts of a gallant band of scholars, who are engaged in the ‘history wars’” (528)

Or put more simply: “Most Americans have few doubts about whose side God is on.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fascinating post, Andrew!

    I haven’t read A Secular Age (the only Taylor I’ve read is Modern Social Imaginaries, which I liked a lot). But your account of applying Taylor’s model for understanding secularization to the U.S. raised a question for me. I wondered if Taylor (or you) have grappled with it.

    One of the most important changes in American religious life since World War II is the decline of mainline Protestant churches and the relative growth of evangelical Protestantism (I seem to remember seeing figures that there’s no absolute increase in church membership over those years, but there’s a major shift from mainline to evangelical Protestant churches).

    Now how would one describe this shift in terms of Taylor’s narrative? Both the mainline churches and the evangelical churches would seem, at first glance, to be neo-Durkheimian in their orientation. And yet, I think this shift is a major part of the drama of secularization (or the lack thereof) in the last six decades of U.S. history.

    So here are some very, very off the cuff thoughts:

    While the mainline churches are very clearly neo-Durkheimian in Taylor’s sense, some evangelicals are pretty explicitly paleo-Durkheimian in their aspirations (I’m thinking of the dominionist movement here). Some other evangelicals, I think, blur the line between paleo-Durkheimianism and neo-Durkheimianism in interesting ways (e.g. by both imagining a civic religious practice that is less generic and producing a non-denominational version of evangelical Christian practice that is more generic).

    If I’m right about the significance of the mainline-to-evangelical shift for questions of secularization in the US, it would also suggest to me that Taylor’s story (as you recount it above) of the Sixties representing the beginning of battle between post-Durkheimians and neo-Durkheimians fails to grapple with this shift, as the leading neo-Durkhiemians of the mid-century US (mainline Protestants) end up playing a very peripheral role (and one largely on the side of the post-Durkheimians) in the culture wars.

    But it’s always dangerous to attempt to apply ideas in books that one hasn’t read. So I look forward to your correcting whatever mistakes you can find in the above account!

  2. Ben: Thanks for the questions. Taylor does in fact discuss the demographic shift from away mainline Protestantism in the context of secularization. He argues that the growth of evangelicalism, especially of the pentecostal/charismatic variant, is related to the age of authenticity in the sense that people’s theological identities are more inwards looking, more self-affirming. Not only in terms of the mode of worship, which is more expressive–Taylor compares this impulse to a rave or sporting event–but also in terms of how one defines a belief in God relative to self desires and definitions as opposed to a grand tradition. So in a sense this shift is consistent with the shift to a POST-Durkheimian era, strangely enough. Of course, as you say, some of the more fundamentalist evangelical strains are much more comfortable thinking about the relationship between religion and society in paleo-Durkheimian ways. And to speak about the loss of authority by the mainline civil religious leaders of the mid-century, I think the neo-Durkheimians of today are more evangelical in the sense of the late Jerry Falwell or perhaps now, in a softer version, Rick Warren. Oh, and I would say Catholics are some of the best neo-Durkheimians nowadays. So this is all very complex and we’re left with the strange situation of evangelicals being paleo-, neo-, and post-Durkheimian all at once!

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