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Christian Smith

Who Paid for Secularization?

The agenda—and money—behind a social shift

"The central claim of this book," writes Christian Smith in the preface to The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Life, just published by the University of California Press, "is that the historical secularization of the institutions of American public life was not a natural, inevitable, and abstract by-product of modernization; rather it was the outcome of a struggle between contending groups with conflicting interests seeking to control social knowledge and institutions." Edited by Smith, with essays by a number of scholars, the book offers a bracingly revisionist account of secularization that is sure to generate debate. To whet your appetite, here is an excerpt from Smith's introduction.

Revolutions and social movements are not simply the result of interested and aggrieved activists capitalizing on new political opportunities. To mobilize and prevail, activists also need access to material resources sufficient to sustain their cause. In some cases, the difference between successful and failed revolutions and movements can be traced largely to increasing and decreasing supplies of resources. The secular revolution succeeded in part because new sources of material resources outside of the control of Protestant authorities became available for secular activists to deploy in the cause of secularization. This story is long and complex, and varies in different spheres of public life. Given space limitations, I focus here on the core economic transformation that shaped activists' secularizing of American higher education and science: the boom and incorporation of industrial capitalism.

One of the most profound social changes taking place during the crucial decades of the secularization of higher education and science was the incorporation of industrial capitalism. The magnitude of this transformation, Clyde Barrow shows, was astounding.1 Spurred by the "epoch-making innovation" of the national railway system established between ...

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