That Charles Taylor’s massive book on the malaises and predicaments of secularity could be taken by so many distinguished intellectuals as a defining tome for our age comes as a surprise. At the very moment when it would have appeared that theories of secularization and disenchantment had finally exhausted their own mythological power to frame modernity, Taylor devotes his immense philosophical gifts to delineating and diagnosing the secular colossus. No doubt I find the trumpeting of “a secular age” particularly problematic because I come at it from the standpoint of what Taylor himself calls “the great enigma of secularization theory,” religion in the United States.
Taylor, in this wondrously encyclopedic work, concentrates especially on the British and French cases, though he is deeply aware of the problem of the “American exception” in debates about the rise and triumph of secularism. He admits that “a fully satisfying account of this difference” between Europe and America eludes him, despite this being “in a sense the crucial question facing secularization theory”: “Here I confess that I am making stabs in the dark.” The problem is not merely that Americans remain peculiarly religious with high rates of church membership, but that the statistical trend in American history has largely been the reverse of what secularization theory would have predicted (at least, in terms of Taylor’s secularity 2: the decline of religious belief and affiliation). By most calculations church membership at the time of the American Revolution hovered around a mere 15% of the population, only to climb steadily over the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. There is little demographic evidence, in other words, for a decline from Bible commonwealth to post-Christian nation. This means that many historians of American religion see the narrative trajectory as one of Christianization rather than secularization. The prevailing question is not how did the United States become irretrievably secular, but why has the country been so religiously vital?
There are, of course, many ways to re-insert secularization into heart of the American story and one way certainly is to define secularity in terms of Taylor’s secularity 3: that is, a society is secular when religion becomes optional, voluntary, and pluralistic; when religion becomes defined in terms of expressive individualism and authenticity; when religion as communal norms gets trumped by spirituality as privatized alternatives. If those “conditions of belief” constitute secularity, then no doubt the United States is a profoundly secular nation. This is not to question Taylor’s secularity 3 as a useful analytic tool for thinking about the dilemmas of Christian belief amid modern social, intellectual, and political structures, but it is to wonder how far it can take us in elucidating the enigma of American religion.
In addressing the puzzle head on, Taylor examines five explanations for the oddity of American religion (though, as he well recognizes, from a perspective broadened beyond the North Atlantic, Europe is the exception, not the United States). These five are: 1) the repeated impact of the immigrant experience in which religion is used to negotiate ethnic identities amid the pressures of cultural dislocation and assimilation; 2) the greater authority of elites in European societies, including secular intellectuals and freethinking academics; 3) the absence of an ancien régime in the United States, and, with that, weaker forms of anti-clericalism and Enlightenment critique; 4) “the reigning synthesis between nation, morality, and religion” in the United States offers more effective resistance to the destabilizing effects of the cultural revolution of the 1960s—in effect, the ongoing strength of the evangelical Right; and 5) the combined force of religious liberalism and Whitmanesque romanticism in which individual freedom, choice, and expressiveness have come to make up the American gene pool (“their whole religious culture was in some way prepared for the Age of Authenticity”). These five points are clearly much more than stabs in the dark, but number five turns the American case into a supreme example of Taylor’s secularity 3. So, despite the ostensible vitality of religion in the United States, secularism quickly comes back to dominate the scene. On these terms, modern forms of religion will always lose out (at least in the scholarly imagination): why bother attending to such anemic imitations of the real thing—a religion of transcendence and fullness? The secular age is all-consuming.
Mark Twain tells a freakish tale of “Extraordinary Twins,” Luigi and Angelo Capello, “a double-headed human creature with four arms, one body, and a single pair of legs.” It is a story worth recalling as a parable about religion’s fate in a supposedly secular age. These conglomerated twins were terribly divided on matters of faith: Luigi’s tastes ran to Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, pipe tobacco, rum shops, and the Freethinkers’ Society. Angelo’s ran instead to Protestant devotionals, temperance, Methodist meetings, and eventually to Baptist full immersion (a miserably wet day for Luigi). Being inseparably joined to his irreligious brother was a trial to Angelo, who, in despairing moments, wished that “he and his brother might become segregated from each other and be separate individuals, like other men.” Then he shuddered at the thought: “To sleep by himself, to eat by himself, walk by himself—how lonely, how unspeakably lonely.” Troubling it was to be bound together, but Luigi and Angelo required one another. And, so it is, we must pair our narratives of modern secularization with narratives of modern sanctification. To see Luigi’s humanistic alternative as creating the secular conditions of Angelo’s faith would be to mistake the weight of this relational dynamic. Only on such doubled terms will we discern the fullness of “that weird strange thing,” America’s uncanny twins.