In certain quarters—mostly its own—the United States is credited with creating those conditions of political, social and cultural experience that led to the famous “separation of church and state” as enshrined in Article One of the Bill of Rights. At the same time, according to every recent poll asking the question, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as religious (and more specifically Christian) is higher than the percentages of nearly every other “first world” nation on the planet. Its national anthem is entirely godless; the Pledge of Allegience places America “under God.” The nation has no official or established church and yet every President from JFK to Barack Obama has concluded every major speech or address by asking God to “bless the United States of America.” Opponents of requiring children in schools to recite the Lord’s Prayer are identified as “un-American.”
The course will consider an origins story of America’s peculiarly religious secularism, tracing the conflict--often a collaborative one--from the earliest times of New England settlement through the colonial period and into the 19th century. We will consider archival and other primary material, as well as contemporary and recent critique of secularism. We will read a variety of theorists to help us develop our own account of the American Secular, including Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Charles Taylor, Michael Warner, and others.