Christopher Grasso on “Religious” and “Secular” in the Early Republic

I’ve been thinking a lot about secularism lately. Not just because my own faith tradition seems to be grappling with it in new and interesting ways, but also because it has become a point of emphasis in my new book project on the political theologies of the Transcendentalists. (I argue that their beliefs offer a counter-narrative to the traditional narratives of disenchantment during the nineteenth century, as they sought to put more divinity into politics, not less.) But I was also confronted again with it on Saturday when Jared Hickman delivered a very smart paper on the secularities of the Book of Mormon. So, the topic’s been on my mind.

Which is why I was pleased to see the just-released issue of Journal of the Early Republic has a disciplinary essay by Christopher Grasso on “The Religious and the Secular in the Early American Republic,” where he draws from recent advances in history, philosophy, religious studies, and anthropology to posit what these knew theoretical models can tell us about America’s past. (I was especially pleased to find that he begins the essay with the Transcendentalists!) He highlights the “instability and ambiguity” of these potent contexts (“religious” and “secular”) and gives a crash-course guide through recent dialogues. “Is secularism an ideology?” Grasso asks. “A sociohistorical process? A modern epistemic category that we impose on the past?” He probes the issue in provocative ways, and succeeds in both showing the superficial nature historians have typically engaged the topic as well as pointing to new potential directions. (He also reminds me that I will have to actually make it through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age at some point; I’m sure my fifth try will be the charm!)

The essay is an immensely useful overview of the past decade’s scholarship on religion in the early republic, from Thomas Kidd to Amanda Porterfield to Sam Haselby to Spencer Fluhman to Ann Taves. I’m especially grateful that he helped me make more sense of John Modern’s book, with which I often struggle. I’m certainly adding the essay to my graduate syllabus on American religious history this fall; it will be useful for my students to understand how “cultural politics” have defined the boundaries between “religious” and “secular” both back then and today.

I’m sure I speak for many when I say I look forward to Grasso’s forthcoming book on Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War, which will appear from Oxford UP. Though I’m a bit of a Grasso hipster, in that I was anxious for his skepticism work before it was cool. See his essays and articles here, here, and here. (This last one I’ve used in class a few times with great rewards–students loved it!)

A quick, final note: this essay is apparently the first in an annual series JER will have on “Surveying the Fields,” where scholars will grapple with similar disciplinary developments. Sounds like a great idea! I’m really excited to see what they come up with next year.

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