"The ‘Secularization’ Question and the United States in the 20th Century" by David A. Hollinger, in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture (Mar. 2001), The Divinity School, Duke Univ., P.O. Box 90975, Durham, N.C. 27708–0975.
There are two basic points of view about secularization in the United States, observes Hollinger, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the first, which is international and comparative, secularization made little headway in 20th-century America. The country remains "the most Christian of the major industrialized nations of the North Atlantic West." The second point of view is national and singular, and quite different from the first. It takes Christian cultural hegemony for the norm and argues that America drifted far from that norm in the course of the 20th century.
Of course, America is more secular than it was a century ago, and yet, Hollinger argues, Christianity continues to be a major force in the culture. (In the presidential campaign of 2000, voters got to choose between two major-party candidates who made their Christianity a part of their appeal.) A too narrow embrace of one or the other point of view can have, in Hollinger’s words, "striking intellectual and professional consequences." Thus, specialists in American religious history who adopt a master narrative of Christian decline in a national tradition "shoot themselves in the professional foot" and isolate themselves from an American historiography to which they could contribute more substantially if they acknowledged the continuing legacy, and indeed the vitality, of Christianity.
Hollinger expresses four "modest hopes" about the approach such scholars will take to the issue of secularization. The first is that they will grapple with the question of why secular outlooks made so little headway in the United States in the 20th century by comparison with what occurred elsewhere in the Western industrialized world. His second hope is that historians will sharpen the discussion of secularization by using instead, in some specific contexts, the term "de-Christianization," which is a more accurate way of representing what has occurred. After all, the secularization to which church historians refer is most often "the decline in authority of one specific cultural program—that of Christianity."
Hollinger’s third hope is that studies of de-Christianization will confront directly the implications of the process for those who are not Christian to begin with, especially American Jews. Jews were victims, for example, of American higher education’s Christian hegemony, and they benefited by de-Christianization. That presents "an interpretive challenge," notes Hollinger, for those church historians who focus primarily on the downside of de-Christianization.
Finally, Hollinger hopes that "we can attend more directly to the cognitive superiority of science than some of the scholars who have the most to say about de-Christianization have proved willing to do." Science, in his view, is not on "an equal epistemic footing with other ways of looking at the world, all of which are then encouraged to respect each other under the ordinance of a genial pluralism." Time will tell whether the response to Hollinger’s "modest hopes," especially among the professional historians to whom they are addressed, will be genial at all.