Kathryn Lofton on Secularization

L. Ron Hubbard

This post comes from our OAH conference correspondent Charles McCrary.  Charlie is a Ph.D candidate in religious studies at Florida State University.  His areas of research includes nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual history, religions of the Pacific, early American Methodism, and the historiography of American religions.  In this piece he responds to Kathryn Lofton’s talk at the State of the Field: Religion in American History session.  Enjoy!  –JF

On Sunday morning at the OAH meeting I attended the State of the Field session for the study of religion and American history. John Fea storified his tweets on this session, providing a good summary of the session. So, instead I will focus on Kathryn Lofton’s presentation on secularism and secularization (this was her topic, alongside “religion and politics,” “religion and gender,” “religion and law,” and “religious diversity and complexity;” these categorizations themselves might have sparked some interesting conversation.) The study of secularism, as well as the use of it as a conceptual framework, is becoming popular in American religious history, especially as historians begin to draw on the work of scholars such as Webb Keane, Talal Asad, and Charles Taylor. Secularism has proved to be a useful frame for scholars of American religion, as evidenced by the work of Tracy Fessenden, John Modern, Gregory Jackson, and others. Lofton prudently cautioned, though, that as more historians become interested in secularism, we ought to be clear about what we mean and how we’re using it. In that spirit, in this post I will attempt to reiterate Lofton’s talk in order to provide a short primer to the place of secularism in American history now

As Lofton noted, secularization and secularism are not new concepts. Max Weber and Sigmund Freud both used them, as did Peter Berger, especially in his 1967 book The Sacred Canopy. Secularization, traditionally understood, is the idea that “religion” is going away or retreating from the public sphere somehow and that Western societies are becoming (and will become) less and less religious. Sociologists have debated this, and much of this depends on polls and categories and so on (Who are the “nones”? Are they a real group?). What Weber, Freud, and Berger were all getting at, though, Lofton argued, is religion as a marker of identity. What are the historical circumstances that created a world where some things, ideas, and people are “religious” and some are “secular”? Secularism, then, is the frame that allows for this taxonomy. It is about, to quote Taylor, the “conditions of belief.” This reminds me of a comment made during the State of the Field session on the American Enlightenment, wherein someone remarked that the Enlightenment was more about epistemology than specific ideas—how we believe more so than what we believe. This is the conversation that historians of American religion and secularism have taken up in the last decade or so.

In this way, Lofton’s talk framed the rest of the panel, as the study of secularism calls into question our categories, how we arrived at them, and why they matter. Why was there a talk on “religious diversity,” but not “religious violence,” for instance? What does that say about the state of the field? Other presenters asked narrower versions of that question, applied to their (sub?)-subfield. Why, Sarah Barringer Gordon asked, do scholars of religion and law study the First Amendment so much but do not often consider tax law or incorporation? What languages or logics mediate among the various actors in our stories? (Lofton argued, with a nod to Mark Valeri and Bethany Moreton, that the only majority transnational category today is finance.) The religion/secularism binary demands answers to the biggest questions about our field as whole. What is it, exactly, that we study? Or, following J.Z. Smith, why this and not that?

Consider Jonathan Edwards and L. Ron Hubbard. Lofton noted that to most of us, Edwards probably seems more theological and Hubbard more, well, “scientological.” But could Edwards not be considered, according to the science of his day, a scientist? Hubbard fought to have his church be legally recognized as a religion. These actors, like all actors, were subjects profoundly constrained and

Jonathan Edwards

conditioned by their own contexts. The study of secularism is largely about emphasizing these contexts or structures, leaving agency an open question. A different strand of history ignores or at least tables these concerns, although they do so, Lofton would say, unadvisedly. Either way, though, if we apply our own definitions of “religion” and “science” to Edwards or Hubbard, we risk obscuring rather than explaining or illuminating the worlds that made and were made by our subjects.

In the Q & A, as well as in other conversations during and after the session, some suggested that Lofton’s talk was not really about history but about something else, “social science” or “theory” instead. I don’t really understand this critique. It seems to me (and I think this is one argument Lofton made, though not quite in these words, in response to David Hollinger’s questions from the audience) that using our subjects’ epistemologies to frame categories is a thoroughly historical approach. If we’re going to plot Jonathan Edwards as an actor in religious history, then we ought to ask what religion meant in, say, 1740s Massachusetts. Secularism is a useful analytic for this type of historical framing.

One thought on “Kathryn Lofton on Secularization

  1. Thanks so much for this overview and reflections, Charles. Amusing that people would try to dismiss Lofton as a “theorist” or “social scientist,” since I think those labels would apply just as well if not better to Hollinger's body of work! I guess, even if someone could be called a theorist or social scientist, does that make them a bad person. 🙂 Thanks to John, as well, for posting this; wish I could have been there.


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