“Many of the converts I describe in the book initially had their religious identities destabilized by encountering other faiths. One New Yorker, for instance, was a disciple of Christian Science at the same time that he attended Congregationalist or Methodist preaching on Sundays and joined Catholic classes for potential converts. People who encountered other faiths couldn’t think of their faith as an unquestioned default.”
In today’s post I am interviewing Lincoln A. Mullen about his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press). Mullen is assistant professor of history and art history at George Mason University.
[TK] You note that “religious identity in the United States is profoundly a matter of individual choice,” and that it has been that way since at least the era of the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s). How does this focus on individual choice set America apart from much of the rest of the world?
[LM] That idea that religion is a choice more than an inheritance developed in a set of circumstances particular to the United States. The disestablishment of religion freed different religious groups not just to hold religious beliefs but, as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom says, “by argument to maintain” them. Protestant and Catholic missionaries made persistent efforts to proselytize, while members of other religions such as American Jews tried (often successfully) to resist them.
New religious groups–whether the Methodists who had next to no adherents in the United States in the 1780s, or the Mormons who grew from nothing following Joseph Smith’s revelations in the 1830s–brought even more religious options to the table. Over time, more and more Americans felt the pressure to convert between religions. The result is that today Americans switch religions more frequently than people in any other country.
You say that as conversion became more central to American religion, America became both more religious, and more secular. How can that be simultaneously true?
Most people probably understand secular in the sense of lacking a religious affiliation. For a long time scholars of religion batted around the (now discredited) idea that as societies become more modern, they become less religious. But in the United States, more people became affiliated with more religious groups over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In terms of rates of affiliation, the United States became more religious.
But secularism as the presence or absence of religious affiliation is less interesting than an understanding proposed by the philosopher Charles Taylor, who calls it as “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged . . . to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”
This book shows how the proliferation of religious options undercut the ability of Americans to regard their faith as something they had simply inherited. For instance, the book starts with the story of Samuel Hill. Raised as a Congregationalist, when Hill became a sailor and sea captain, he turned into an outspoken skeptic. He eventually experienced an evangelical conversion in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The religion he had inherited–or perhaps, failed to inherit–became a religion he chose for himself.
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