ShaunTology Part 1

by Charlie McCrary

This is the first in a series of posts on Shaun T, creator of the popular home workouts Insanity, Hip Hops Abs, and, most recently, Focus T25. The programs are available through Beachbody, a fitness company with an extensive network of Shaun T’s workout programs, sold through television infomercials and increasingly through online marketing, are strenuous and demanding (Insanity is marketed as the “hardest workout ever put on DVD”), almost fetishizing sweat and exhaustion as evidence of progress. The Insanity infomercials feature home video “testimonial” of people “just like you” who made the choice to change their bodies and lives. They almost invariably emphasize the difficulty, the pain, and the overcome desire to quit: a script for you to follow—and physical evidence of its possibility.

A number of scholars (e.g., see here and here) have explored the “religious” side of fitness culture, especially evangelical diet and fitness plans (Beachbody sells one). CrossFit Religion has garnered some recent attention. There is much that could be and has been written about workout routines as liturgical, group fitness classes as churches, and so on. There are testimonials, after all. But that’s not my point here. Shaun T might occasionally effect the cadence of a Pentecostal preacher, but his programs are not “religious.” In fact, I argue that they are veritably a product of our secular age. I am not saying that fitness routines are some secular substitute for “traditional religion.” Rather, this secular age makes fitness culture in its current iteration possible (this includes “religious” fitness programs, which operate in the same conceptual environment). I’m interested in the way Shaun T talks, his use of words like “trust” and “believe,” his epistemology, his ontology. In this first post in the series, I will explain briefly what I mean by “secularism” and its relation to individualism, the body, and “human flourishing.” By the conclusion of the series, I hope to have sketched out the contours of a secular “conceptual environment” in which Shaun T and his devotees flourish.

Secularization is a fraught and contested concept with a long history, but what is shared by almost all secularization theses is the notion that the last half-millennium of Western thought, religion, and politics has elevated the role of the individual. The roots of this individualism are often traced to the Reformation, with Enlightenment reason and the era of democratic revolutions as important signposts. Despite numerous “setbacks,” for the most part individual human freedoms have expanded. The history of the United States is frequently told in this way. While some scholars have slipped into teleological modes to narrate this story, many historians and philosophers of secularization nevertheless have made creative and careful arguments about the ideological and political shifts driving Western societies toward secularism.

Since Christianity has been so dominant, it makes sense to locate the shifts in Western Christianity itself. This interpretation has a variety of shades, from Peter Berger’s Christianity as “its own gravedigger” to John Modern’s “evangelical secularism” to Brad Gregory’s recent “unintended Reformation.” Protestants have secularized society, these narratives go, insofar as they have elevated individual conscience and perpetuated an ethic of individual morality. This could be a good thing (an argument given to anti-Catholicism—I’m lookin’ at you, Marcel Gauchet) or a bad thing (Brad Gregory basically says that it caused consumer capitalism and thus global warming), depending on one’s perspective.

What is shared among secularization theses, though, is the notion that, largely because of Protestants’ emphasis on the individual, “humanity” and humans have valued selves more highly, imbued them with more rights, and accorded them more responsibilities. Because this valuation does not rely on an institutional church (though in many cases still relies on a concept of god), it can be rendered “natural.” Thus, secularization and “natural right” are linked, as in the work of John Locke. Talal Asad makes the connection, via legal discourse, this way:

“The human being is a sovereign, self-owning agentessentially suspicious of othersand not merely a subject conscious of his or her own identity. It is on this basis that the secularist principle of the right to freedom of belief and expression was crafted” (135).

To be in control of one’s body, to own and discipline one’s body—these are secular values with a specific history in the United States.

Though secularism might enshrine the individual, this setup is what supports the public realm. Self-controlled citizens are good democratic citizens. Secularization privatized ethics, relegating them to the level of individual in order to make a distinctly political space. This appears only natural, and Western citizens, particularly Americans, unable to participate in a direct democracy, take pride in their self-ownership, shaping their bodies and changing their “lives.” Shaun T implores, “Only continue to do something if YOU enjoy it—not because someone made you do it. Why am I saying this? Because it’s YOUR body and YOUR life.” Self-direction—agency, choice—validates action. “Would you like it,” Shaun T asks, “if someone ‘made’ me create my programs? Nope! You wouldn’t see the drive and the passion I have to help you succeed. What I do is real. What I say is real.”

Secular ontologies, like those claimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, insisting that “the human being owns his or her body and has the inalienable right to enjoy it” (Asad, Formations of the Secular, 149), make Shaun’s direction intelligible, even reasonable. Such secularity, combined with a particularly American democratic self, constructs Shaun T’s epistemology, and helps explain the latent anti-Catholicism in the quotations above. To put it bluntly, Shaun T and his programs make sense only in a secular age.

Shaun T is a product (and seller) of secular culture, but secularization is only one historical trend constructing his world. In the next post in this series, I will build on this sketch of Shaun T and his devotees’ world by discussing the particularly American historical tradition to which he is a most recent addition. An American tradition of self-culture, itself a distillation of various political and religious projects, can be drawn in such a way that leads us to Shaun T.

Charlie McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary. 

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