On the Discourses of Secularism and Pluralism

AHA Session 203
American Society of Church History 19
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Liberty Suite 5 (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Tisa Wenger, Yale Divinity School

Session Abstract

In a provocative 2001 essay in Church History on “The Secularization Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century,” David Hollinger called for “more extensive attention to the religious counterpart of the Sombartian question, which is, ‘Why have secular outlooks made so little headway in the United States in the twentieth century?’” To this end, he suggested a terminological change: “Our discussion of ‘secularization’ would be sharpened if, in many contexts, we employed the term ‘de-Christianization’ instead.” This roundtable will use Hollinger’s proposal as a jumping-off point for thinking about the relationship between secularizing and pluralizing forces in the history of North America. We will pay particularly close attention to discourses of secularism and pluralism and the methodological issues that arise in studying them. Each participant in the roundtable has addressed these questions in their work and will draw on their own scholarship in their remarks.                                                                                                                       

Hollinger also encouraged scholars of religion to consider the implications of the process of de-Christianization for those who are not Christians, and to confront more openly the challenges posed by claims concerning “the cognitive superiority of science.” In conjunction with these concerns, we will ask how the move away from the establishment clause and toward the free exercise clause in First Amendment jurisprudence speaks to the relationship between secularism and pluralism. We will also ask how the relationship between science and religion would be reconfigured if we accepted Hollinger’s terminological proposal. What would it mean to exchange the core claim of secularization, that we are becoming more reliant on science (to the benefit of all religions or of some more than others? at the expense of all religions or of some more than others?) for the core claim of de-Christianization, that we are becoming less reliant on Christianity? If narratives of secularization imply scientific hegemony and narratives of de-Christianization imply Christian hegemony, then we are left asking whether these terms of debate fit the American context. What is the relationship between de-Christianization and the various arguments about Protestant hegemony offered by historians of religion in North America? What new paths could we chart out of this thicket?                                                                       

These questions connect to a wide range of going concerns in the fields of intellectual and religious history, including the extent to which we can call religious freedom an “impossibility” or a “myth”; what it means to say that we live in a time that is “after pluralism” or “post-secular”; the implications of conflating religion with secularism or politics (as in the phrases “a religion of secularism” or “a religion of democracy”); and how the relationship between secularism and pluralism relates to the category of religion itself (as in the notion of the “Protestant secular”). This panel will be of interest to scholars from many disciplines who care about the history of religion, church-state relations, religious freedom and human rights, secularism and secularization, pluralism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, political theology, political religions, the relationship between science and religion, and the questions of evidence that arise in these areas.

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