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Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

Tracy Fessenden
Published by Princeton University Press in 2006

Tracy Fessenden’s new book, Culture and Redemption, maps the genealogy of what has been called “the Protestant consensus” and its affect on American literature from the Puritans to the modernists. In one sense this is an old and discredited story. For the past 25 years, the multicultural left has disputed that there has ever been any consensus whatsoever. On the cultural and Christian right, the so-called consensus could hardly be called Christian and might be understood more rightly as a squishy liberal agnosticism dressed up in Episcopal vestments. Fessenden makes a convincing case for the impossibility of understanding American cultural and religious history without putting at the center something like a Protestant consensus and the forms of secularization it enables.

Fessenden’s argument opens with the thesis that students of religion and literature have been driven by a fairly simple secularization model that assumes literature displaces or takes the place of religion in a secularizing modern world. Matthew Arnold famously relocated religion’s powers of legitimation to “culture,” intimating the supersession of religion by great works of imaginative literature and other, erstwhile secular forms—a shift given theological endorsement in the last century by Paul Tillich, among others. Far from attending to the presence of religion in literary contexts, then, students of religion-and-literature learned instead to seek after its absence, its displacement by or reconstitution as the newly empowered secular, freed from the trappings of ritual, the limitations of historical communities, or the embarrassments of outmoded belief (1).

In this view of secularization, whatever form of Protestant consensus that has existed gives way before a newly regnant secularization. For progressives, this is the mythology of, well, progress. For conservatives, this reenacts the fall in cultural terms. For Fessenden, this entire view misses the way that secularization masks its broadly Protestant Christian contours and the way that secularization becomes a means of purveying or privileging religion—or more specifically, American Protestantism—by other means. Fessenden’s reading challenges both the current liberal and multicultural story of the secular state as a zone of pluralistic freeplay as well as the conservative insistence that the American world has gone to hell in an atheistic handbasket. For Fessenden, our dominant notions of pluralistic tolerance have derived from a specifically Protestant/Puritan notion that authentic faith is a matter of spiritual interiority. Various Protestantisms have found this structure amenable but it has required the reconfiguration or exclusion of other religions (including other Christianities) for which such individualized spirituality is not the norm. As for conservative mythologies, going to hell in whatever kind of basket is a particularly Christian form of imaginative and political engagement with the world, one not available to Buddhists or other religions without a hell, save when they are reconfigured as various forms of a universalized liberal Protestantism in the hands of American academics.

As one might suspect in a story about Protestantism and American secularization, Fessenden begins with the Puritans. Indeed, in some respects Fessenden’s work recovers and extends the work of cultural historians like Sacvan Bercovitch self-consciously. But while typical stories of the Puritan origins of the American self emphasize the ways in which latter-day inheritors like the Romantics attenuate, reconfigure, and secularize an originally religious vision, Fessenden makes the case that the Puritan religious imagination itself is the source of the American secular imagination, so much so that we might think of this properly as Christian secularization rather than something that is anti-Christian. The Puritan tendency to turn all of life into a sacred realm had the ironic effect of making the religious mundane, both in the sense of its everydayness and in the sense that everydayness itself can become invisible if not inconsequential.

The very vigor of the Puritan effort to render heaven and earth commensurable gave rise by the nineteenth century to what many accounts of America’s religious development depict as a form of national life in which the religious and the civil are barely distinguishable. Only in America, as Richard Rapson puts it, has “religion ever been so exclusively addressed to this world, so accessible, so awe-uninspiring, so common-sensical, so unmysterious, so simple, so sympathetic to every day human needs” (17).1

Such everyday familiarity, of course, depends not simply on dissolving the dividing wall between the sacred and the secular; it depends as well on rigorous and even violent exclusions of anything that might suggest that this reconciliation between the sacred and the profane is particular rather than universal, privileged rather than merely normal. The early chapters of Fessenden’s book are not groundbreaking in detailing well-known exclusions in American culture based on racial and religious difference. Nevertheless, though they have been much rehearsed, some Puritans’ bald association of genocide with the will of the Lord remains chilling.

However, what is more important is Fessenden’s argument that the perceived remedy for religious violence, a secularized state and a secularizing culture, reinscribes and privileges Protestant forms of religious experience. The more original parts of her book come later as she reexamines the ascendancy in the latter 19th and early 20th century of what is taken to be a secular culture triumphant over religion. To the contrary, Fessenden discovers a tremendous ambivalence about religion in a man normally taken as a pillar of secularity, Mark Twain. She traces this ambivalence to Twain’s imperfectly articulated sense of his own position as a man who could be at one time an aggressive critic of his religious culture while at the same time being an iconic pillar of that culture. Similarly, Fessenden perceives Charlotte Perkins Gilman, cast often as a foremother of secular feminism, as privileging white Protestantism over and against the threats posed to the state by Roman Catholic immigrants or by oriental despotism. Gilman’s racism and ethnocentrism have been passed over most often by her champions, but Fessenden suggests they are deeply attached to a view of individual authenticity central to her understanding of feminism. Since the Puritans, this view has cast religious otherness as inimical to the health of the free individual and the effective functioning of the state. Finally, at the apparent apotheosis of secular culture in the dissolving acids of modernism, Fessenden discovers in F. Scott Fitzgerald a man desperately seeking a Catholic secularity that would be different from the WASP secularity that he longed for but never achieved.

I found Fessenden’s work provocative and useful, even though I am not always convinced by the shape of some arguments. She seems taken too easily with the thesis that the Enlightenment is an extension plain and simple of the impulses of the Reformation if not the impulses of Christianity itself. This is a common thesis. But not an undisputed one. While I think Fessenden is right to perceive that Christianity initiates a unique formulation of the sacred and the secular—perhaps even the notion of the secular itself—and that Protestantism’s emphasis on spiritual and individual interiority created a space for the development of secularism, it does not follow that secularism as it develops is really just a disguised Christianity. The risk of genealogy is to assume that meanings of a cultural formation are understood best in relationship to its changing development. However, in the changes and mutations of history, cultural formations take on a life and meaning of their own that are significantly if not completely independent of the origins to which they can be traced. While modern secularism may be a cultural formation made possible by Protestant Christianity, it does not follow that secularism merely extends Protestant hegemony or even that it always works to the benefit of Protestant Christianity.

To be sure, one way religions—whether Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Islamic—can flourish and find a home in the United States is by remaking themselves along Protestant lines. One would not be terribly surprised to walk in to the local mosque or Buddhist temple and discover the congregants singing “God Bless America” with flags waving on July 4th. Nevertheless, the secular insistence that religious expression remain private, that it remain unthreatening, and that it not present itself as other to our social and political norms is a form of coercion that can be felt by Protestant, Catholic and Jew alike.

Similarly, Fessenden’s view of what is Protestant seems unnecessarily narrow and totalizing. While it is arguably the case that some forms of Protestantism initiate a deeply individualized form of spirituality, this is hardly all that Protestantism is, and not all Protestantisms negotiate the relationship between individuality and community in the same fashion. Thus, public secularisms that insist on this particular formulation for religious belief can be understood as coercively reducing the richness and multiplicity of Protestant religious traditions, even when those same secularisms can trace their roots in one fashion or another to Protestant history.

A final note is that Fessenden’s book is rich by being peculiarly narrow in a certain sense. To be fair, her thesis that the Protestant consensus should be given new attention necessarily leads her to spend most of her time rereading the iconic figures of that tradition and the secularism that she sees springing from it. Too often, it is a cheap form of criticism to complain about what is left out. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering about all that is not said. In a book that wants to insist on what both Protestantism and its secular progeny exclude, it is hard not to notice that this book also excludes much consideration of other voices and how they respond to the dominant paradigms of secularization. Although she does try to position Fitzgerald as an ethno-religious outsider, there is relatively little made of the fact that Fitzgerald’s particular self-making is made possible by his being white rather than not. Although Fessenden makes something of a case for Jay Gatsby’s metaphorical blackness, there is surely a difference in the United States between being metaphorically black and being African American. The story through which the Irish “become white” in the United States is mostly absent from Fessenden’s analysis, but if becoming white is possible for the Irish, and if that becoming is in partly a process of adapting to the Christian secularity of American public spaces, then it is surely important to consider the role of race in relationship to religion and secularity as well, or at least give it more consideration than Fessenden gives here.

Similarly, what of those who could not become white in the American context? What role does secularism and religion play in the self-making of African Americans or other Americans of color? Fessenden notes that the absolute exclusion from the Puritan community of religious and racial others resulted ultimately in a marked religiousness being associated with the “outside” of the American polis; the religion of everyday life was invisible while the religion of cultural/political/racial others became marked as peculiarly or dangerously religious. I doubt that Fessenden simply accepts the generally popular conception that ethnic others—especially African Americans and Native Americans, but also unassimilated white ethnics—are uniquely religious in a way that white secular Protestants are not, but it is hard to tell from what she actually has on the page. From Harriet Beecher Stowe to the present, one stream of American popular culture has constructed the African American and Native American experience as religious per se, and in a way that white Americans need to recover for themselves.

In actual fact, of course, the case is hardly so simple. During the modernist period, writers of the Harlem Renaissance sought to develop a secular culture independent of the political and cultural power of the black church, and sought to remake black religion to fit publically acceptable (white middle class) norms or to aestheticize those elements of black religion that could not be assimilated to such norms. Whether one thinks of William Du Bois insisting that black churches had to get rid of outmoded doctrines and appeal to the reasonof the growing African American professional class, or of Langston Hughes proclaiming that what was important about low church African American religious ecstasy was that it was really a bit like jazz, African American artists and intellectuals attempted to create a secular alternative to religious African American life. Is this simply a replication of the dominant story of the Protestant consensus and its accompanying secularization from the Puritans to the modernists? I tend to think not, if for no other reason than the racial contexts of American culture make certain kinds of self and culture making possible and others not. While a secularist like H. L. Mencken may have been a crypto-Protestant, he could deride and dismiss the denizens of the church in a way that Du Bois and Hughes finally could not. This privilege was based less on his being a crypto-Christian secularist than on his being white.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that Fessenden’s work deserves a great deal of careful attention. Her work is located within recent efforts such as those of Talal Asad and others to develop a more sophisticated sense of secularization, as well as a more critical sense of how the very term “Religion” may privilege certain forms of Western conceptualization. One of the primary political and cultural tensions associated with the developments of global culture and capitalism is that this religious/secular formation and the culture that it assumes are often imported willy-nilly into political, cultural, and religious formations with entirely different cultural logics. Fessenden’s work shows that our generalized use of a term like “the modern nation-state” is hardly a neutral term of political and cultural analysis, but carries with it a tremendous array of assumptions about the appropriate roles of religion and state in political and culture life, assumptions that are hardly natural but which represent a particular historical accommodation and development. Since religion is again—if it ever ceased to be—one of the most difficult and important areas of cultural and political conflict, it is incumbent upon all of us to develop a politics and a cultural analysis sophisticated enough to engage that conflict anew. Fessenden’s work is an important contribution to such an effort.

Cite this article
Peter Kerry Powers, “Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular and American Literature”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:1 , 181-185


  1. Richard L. Rapson, “The Religious Feelings of the American People, 1845-1935: A British View,” Church History 35 (1966): 327.

Peter Kerry Powers

Messiah University
Peter Kerry Powers, Department of Language, Literature and Writing, Messiah University.