The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life


The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, edited by Christian Smith.

A fascinating series of case studies, paired with an ambitious and generally successful attempt to rethink the sociological theory of "secularization," of how American public life came to be vacant of, and often hostile to, religious contributions. Smith's aim in gathering the scholars together for this is twofold. First, he wants to rethink the theory of secularization, which is largely discredited in contemporary sociology, by refraining the study in terms of the sociology of revolutions and power struggles between interest groups in society. Second, Smith wants to map the history of this revolution, insisting on the agency of particular actors and interest groups at particular times, thus stripping away the patina of "inevitability" that necessarily adheres to received accounts of secularization, which seem more like plate tectonics than things humans have done. On this view, secularization was the outcome of a struggle between the emerging "knowledge class" required by industrial capitalism and institutionalized in research universities in the late 19th century, and the declining liberal-Protestant clerisy whose reign was already fractured and tottering by the 1870s, and which responded to the challenge with disastrous strategies. …

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