The American Culture of Despair

The Sacred, Secularity, and the Test of Time

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Richard K. Fenn
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    , December
     181 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As evidenced by its ambitious title, Richard Fenn’s The American Culture of Despair: The Sacred, Secularity, and the Test of Time is a text that seeks to project itself into a bygone canon of “big” sociology. Indeed, running at just under 150 pages (notes included), Fenn’s work is reminiscent of that class of seminal publications (esp. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, [1910] 2010), Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (Anchor Books, 1969) and Bryan Wilson’s Religion in a Secular Society (C.A. Watts & Co., 1966)) that advanced the sociological study of religion and secularization by weaving grand theory out of a compressed blend of focused case studies and historical narratives. In this respect, Fenn’s work strays in method (if not necessarily in purpose) from those earlier projects, leaning heavily on its abstracted, central argument in a way that will potentially divide its audience—delighting readers who long for an overarching mythology by which to frame America’s present climate, and likely infuriating those who want something more concrete.

Increasingly since the 2016 presidential election, voices in the popular editorial press have gestured towards a potential authoritarian moment occurring in the United States (see: “The Contract with Authoritarianism,” Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, April 5, 2018). Largely due to its focus on “a regressive cycle that eventually links despair to [the public’s] longing for a Caesar,” Fenn’s work feels in step with this conversation, even as it redirects the question of whether Donald Trump is the cause (“How to Vaccinate U.S. Democracy Against Trump-style Authoritarianism,” Brian Klaas, The Washington Post, August 30, 2018) or merely a symptom (“Donald Trump and the Stress Test of Liberal Democracy,” David Remnick, The New Yorker, March 19, 2018) of an anti-democratic strand of authoritarianism towards loftier themes concerned with cultural despair and an inexorable “fatigue of the sacred” (xxvii). In service to these ideas, Fenn offers an ambitious historical analysis that ties a series of “critical moments” together into a provocative narrative—one that connects the nation’s inability to sanctify events like the assassinations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln to a kind of lethargic secularization that “prolongs the time being while … offering [in its future] few enduring sources of vision and vitality” (112). Ultimately, Fenn’s contribution is certainly not an optimistic one, and is perhaps best represented—at least in tone—by its chosen bookends: a meandering rumination on the subject of missed possibilities and a wry invitation for the military brass to rise up against a sitting US president.

Apart from those moments where Fenn (re-)articulates his central thesis, however, the core message of The American Culture of Despair often seems occluded—maybe intentionally so—behind its aphoristic structure and indulgent prose. Transitions such as “Politics becomes fused with life: means with ends; words with deeds. Differences disappear within the difference supplied by the sanctified nation-state itself” (13) perhaps do less to clarify any transportable wisdom than they do to complicate adjacent content—in this case, Kennedy’s 1961 State of the Union Address. Likewise, though Fenn engages at length with several key scholars (most notably Catherine Albanese, Umberto Eco, Hoyt Alverson, and Giorgio Agamben), the sourcing throughout is relatively minimalist, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly what conversations the author is engaging in and when, and the extent to which he intends to drastically upend those conversations or merely reference them as a means to set up his own contributions further down the road.

That being said, it is easy to imagine the way that Fenn’s work might land exceptionally well as an intentional foil in a syllabus on any number of subjects. In a reading list on secularization, Fenn’s reluctance to directly define the concept, even as he makes claims such as “America has become a truly secular society” (36), could certainly ignite conversations about the way that religiosity has been operationalized—and that the ways that those operationalizations belie certain assumptions—in the modern study of religion. In a class on American history, Fenn’s assertion that “the longing for a Caesar has been embedded in American society since the eve of the Revolution and has haunted every later Kairos” (88) could play well against those narratives that emphasize the essentially democratic character of the nation’s founding, or perhaps draw further mileage out of a text like Rogers M. Smith’s Civic Ideals (Yale University Press, 1999) which is already in the business of destabilizing triumphalist narratives. In either case, The American Culture of Despair is perhaps more workable as a catalyst than it is immediately accessible as a central text on its own—a vehicle for provocation that, due to its penchant for grand, abstracted theory, might only bear fruit in isolation for the most devoted readers.

All told, The American Culture of Despair extends beyond its brevity to present its audience with a narrative that is both illuminating and frustrating. Reflecting on the context in which Fenn finds himself writing, however, this combination is not particularly surprising. Rather, at its best, it potentially demonstrates the extent to which the present American moment eludes straightforward analysis or comfortable answers. Or, perhaps it means to reproduce the fractured, multiple histories that have converged on a contemporary political climate that seems uniquely primed to welcome bald-faced authoritarianism. Referring, again, to Fenn’s parting sentiment: “One can only hope” (145).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Troy Mikanovich is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Political Science and Adjunct Instructor at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard K. Fenn has been contributing to the sociology of religion since he first entered the field in the 1960s. For many years, he held the Upson Chair of Christianity and Society at the Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. His work on the theory of secularization has appeared in several books, including Beyond Idols and The Persistence of Purgatory. In Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion, he showed that, over the last one hundred years, sociologists have increasingly considered the study of the sacred as a subject independent of religion itself.


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