American Secularism and Its Believers
- ISBN: 9780226817958
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: April 2022
In his debut monograph Sincerely Held: American Secularism and Its Believers, Charles McCrary puts forth a clever, well-crafted account of American secularism, religion, and sincerity. He pulls at three entwined threads––a tale of knaves and fools, a legal history of the sincerity test, and a secularization narrative––to reveal an original history of religious freedom. More to the point, Sincerely Held exposes what Winnifred Fallers Sullivan has called the “rotten core” of religious freedom––sincerely held religious belief––and delivers a thoroughgoing critique of US religious freedom, while also offering insights and interventions into religious studies, secularism studies, and the “secularization debate” that absorbs both fields (275).
Why is this phrase––one that has been at the heart of US. free exercise law and has spread into the veins of American political and cultural discourse––rotten? Drawing on scholarship in secularism studies, McCrary argues that the sincere believer is a subject produced and regulated by a regime of racial liberalism––that is, a secular subject, typically coded as masculine, white, and Protestant, whose beliefs are individual, rational, and private (26-27; 114). As a result, “religious freedom, as a liberal institution, serves to grant freedoms selectively, protecting certain dissenters while upholding normative subjectivities” (249). In other words, the benefits of religious freedom in the United States tend to be unevenly distributed to a particular kind of subject, namely, the believer whose religion comports with the demands of American secularism.
Sincerely Held consists of eight chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. McCrary effectively uses the introduction to orient readers to secularism studies, where he defines secularism as “political projects of governance that produce, regulate, and enforce secularity, especially the boundaries between religion and not-religion, or between good religion and bad” (7-8). In the context of modern American secularism, “good” religion entails beliefs that do not possess an individual but that an individual possesses; that are not impressed upon a person but that a person rationally chooses to accept; and that are essentially different than other sorts of beliefs––especially political ones––which the believer holds privately, while also being able to express and perform them in public sincerely (12-17; 65).
Sincerity, however, can only be expressed and performed against the backdrop of insincerity (25). In Chapter 1, McCrary taps Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) as a conversation partner to offer a “character sketch” of the secular subject, showing how the sincere believer is realized against its other, “the duplicitous fraud” (31). The next two chapters more explicitly establish the theoretical and historical context for the book, addressing the intersections of sincerity, secular governance, and religious freedom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapter 2 introduces Anthony Comstock and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), where McCrary highlights key techniques of secular governance––documentation, surveillance, calculation––and the often underrecognized role of state or state-adjacent agents, outside of the courts, in regulating religion (55, 82). Chapter 3 begins to explore the selective nature of religious freedom by attending to Spiritualist women like Alice Ashley, who was arrested for telling fortunes. Ashley protested that the state had denied her religious freedom, but secular authorities reasoned that, because fortune-telling was fake (i.e., insincere), it was irreligious (83). Yet cases such as Ashley’s pointed to a troubling implication: if courts determined the sincerity of a religious belief based on its veracity, then state actors were wading in theological waters. The eventual solution was “to try claimants on the basis of their sincerity, leaving questions of religious truth aside,” which came to full fruition in Ballard v. United States (1944), when the Supreme Court initiated the sincerity test (109).
The next three chapters span from 1940 until the early 1970s. Through an analysis of conscientious objection cases and the vast bureaucracy that accompanied them, chapter 4 begins to trace the development of sincerely held belief while also throwing light on one of secularism’s most effective disciplinary mechanisms: paperwork. By way of forms, conscientious objectors throughout the 1940s and 50s were disciplined into sincere believers. The pivotal conscientious objection case for McCrary, however, was United States v. Seeger (1965), which is discussed at length in chapters 5 and 6. The court in Seeger “reconceptualized religious belief as a mode of believing––believing religiously––rather than a belief in a particular set of ‘religious’ content” (144). This marked a shift in how religious belief had been understood throughout most of American history and set the terms for First Amendment jurisprudence moving forward (172).
Indeed, the Seeger ruling expanded religious freedom for some subjects, like Dan Seeger, by opening up space “for vaguely Tillichian, white, (post) Protestant expressions to be read as religious” (190). But secularism produces and protects implicitly racialized and gendered subjects, and so other claimants were not as easily read by the courts as being sincerely religious.
One of those claimants was Frank Africa, a member of MOVE––a religious group that lived out a radical message of liberation from the “System”––who, in the early 1980s, requested dietary accommodations while imprisoned (208). Chapter 7 analyzes how the courts determined that Africa’s beliefs were sincere, but not really religious. McCrary contends that the court’s deliberations betrayed “ideas about Black religious irrationality . . . [which] mark MOVE people as outside the bounds of ‘religion,’ which is to say white, rational, sincere religion,” underscoring Vincent Loyd’s claim that “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white (228, 230).
The final chapter moves into the 2010s. It explains how sincerely held belief has been transformed beyond the courts into a “new politics of religious freedom,” which is largely marked by conservative Christians using sincere religion to infringe on the civil liberties of others (27; 237). That said, while some elements of this new cultural politics are actually new, using religious freedom as a “sword” is not. As a liberal institution, McCrary writes, “religious freedom has sometimes been used as a shield but has always been used as a sword” (251). Finally, the epilogue establishes the link between sincerely held belief and “post-truth politics,” both of which share “an inability or unwillingness to deliberate in public about the content of ideas” (267).
McCrary’s writing is a delight to read (as are his many “sincere” footnotes), and students and scholars from a range of disciplines will find this book to be a highly engaging text, one that is challenging in the best of ways.
Nicholas Covaleski is a PhD student in Religions in American Culture at Boston University.Nicholas CovaleskiDate Of Review:December 23, 2022