By A.T. Coates
Steam engines. Conversions. Inmates. Tracts. Networks. Vibrations. A white whale. John Lardas Modern’s exciting book on antebellum secularism winds through Moby-Dick, evangelical print culture, spiritualism, phrenology, anthropology, prison reform, and concludes with a brief discussion of “fucking machines.” Secularism in Antebellum America examines the conditions under which certain ideas about “true religion” emerged in America. In keeping with recent developments, this book does not treat secularism as religion’s opposite. Modern primarily uses the term “secularism” to describe a social context, a discourse that connected a diverse array of “religious” activities in the antebellum period. He uses the term to denote “that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense” (7). In this book, secularism is the soil from which particular ideas about religion sprouted, “supplying both the ground and ingredients of the freedoms enacted in the name of true religion” (9). Secularism acts as a “connective tissue” of shared metaphysics, epistemology, and politics that produced good democratic citizens and subjects who thought of themselves as capable of making free religious choices (282). Secularism describes “those formations—social, conceptual, and technical—that enabled a broad Protestant majority, circa 1851, to convince themselves that they were religious” (45). In brief, a specter called secularism haunted religion in antebellum America. Like a ghostly presence, Modern writes, secularism “exceeds our capacity to name it” (10). Secularism united the American Tract Society’s colporteurs with mediums conducting séances,statements about the marvels of steam power with phrenological maps, the disestablished churches of the new republic with the crew of the Pequod. Avoiding systematic argumentation, Modern impressionistically renders a shade.
Half Foucauldian discourse analysis, half Derridean hauntology, and half revisionist religious history (trust me, those numbers add up for this book), Secularism in Antebellum America brings a fresh perspective to a burned-over region in the historiographical record. Contrary to a prevailing narrative about the flowering of “democratized” religious diversity during this period, Modern argues that secularism lurked in everyone’s garden. Secularism offered the attitudes toward technology, structures of affect, and constructions of the subject under which evangelicalism—like spiritualism and phrenology—could emerge. At the same time, secularism itself took shape through evangelical faith in the steam press, the “feedback” of colporteur reports about the population, and the cultivation of particular kinds of reading/voting/converting subjects.
Modern’s book invites scholars of evangelical media to move beyond models that focus solely on the self-understandings of religious actors, that scrutinize the winks and feigned-winks and parodied feigned winks of religious media. It encourages imaginative engagement with the kinds of social worlds evangelical media generated and operated within. It begs that we think about the subjective, discursive, affective possibilities new media created and the historical conditions under which particular mediations of religion became possible.
This is a condensed version from my blog: www.atcoates.com