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The “Secularization” Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

David A. Hollinger
Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.


Why have secular outlooks made so little headway in the United States in the twentieth century? Why did the Congress of the United States impeach Bill Clinton in 1998? Why have so many medical doctors in the United States been intimidated into refusing to provide abortion services to women? Might the answers to these three questions be the same?

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2001

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1. These reflections were presented under the title “The Secularization of American Culture” at a session of the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in Washington, D.C., 10 01 1999, commented on helpfully by Marie Griffith.Google ScholarHart's, D. G.The Failure of American Religious History,” Journal of the Historical Society 1 (2000): 131, also comments on this presentation. I want to thank Grant Wacker and the other editors of Church History for helping me revise that presentation for publication, although I have retained the informal tone designed for oral presentation.Google ScholarThis piece builds upon an earlier essay of mine, “Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century,” in Stout, Harry S. and Hart, D. G., eds., New Directions in American Religious History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 462–84.Google ScholarFinally, I want to acknowledge that my opinions on the issues I address here have been influenced by the writings and personal conversations of six historians: Boyer, Paul S., Hutchison, William, Kuklick, Bruce, Moore, R. Laurence, Numbers, Ronald L., and Turner, James. Some of them will dissent from the emphases that define this piece, but I greatly appreciate the efforts all six have made to expand and enrich the field of American religious history and to integrate it into the larger field of the history of the United States.Google Scholar

2. For example, see Finke, Roger and Stark, Rodney, The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992).Google Scholar

3. Lipset, Seymour Martin, American Exceptionalism: The Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).Google Scholar

4. Blumenberg, Hans, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans, by Wallace, Robert (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983).Google ScholarFor a helpful discussion of this work, first published in Germany in 1966, see Jay, Martin, Fin-de-Siede Socialism (New York: Routledge, 1988), 149–64.Google Scholar

5. Gellner, Ernest, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion (London: Routledge, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6. Bruce, Steve, ed., Religion and Modernization: Historians and Sociologists Debate the Secularization Thesis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992). Brian Wilson's comments about “lamenters” are found in his contribution to this volume.Google Scholar

7. This truth about many of the people most engaged by the “secularization question” was brought home to me repeatedly in meetings of the Lilly Foundation's Seminar on Religion and American Higher Education. This project brought together thirty academics—all but four of whom were identified with Christian commitment—for three years of intensive discussion, 1996–1999. Although no one explicitly endorsed going back to the status quo of 1930 or of 1880, it was abundantly clear throughout the seminar that the very topic “Religion and Higher Education” carried for most participants the implication that Christianity had been devalued in American academia and that something should be done to fix this problem. For my own comments on the Lilly Seminar, see my “Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity,” in Religion, Scholarship and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models and Future Prospects, ed. Sterk, Andrea (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming, 2001).Google Scholar

8. For these events at Yale, see Oren, Dan A., Joining the Club: A History of jews and Yale (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985).Google Scholar

9. Walker, Samuel, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999).Google Scholar

10. Berger, Peter, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).Google Scholar

11. Nord, Warren, Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill: Univeristy of North Carolina Press, 1995), 286, 377.Google Scholar

12. Nord, , Religion & American Education, 378.Google Scholar