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Sincerely Held

American Secularism and Its Believers

Sincerely Held

American Secularism and Its Believers

A novel account of the relationship between sincerity, religious freedom, and the secular in the United States.
“Sincerely held religious belief” is now a common phrase in discussions of American religious freedom, from opinions handed down by the US Supreme Court to local controversies. The “sincerity test” of religious belief has become a cornerstone of US jurisprudence, framing what counts as legitimate grounds for First Amendment claims in the eyes of the law. In Sincerely Held, Charles McCrary provides an original account of how sincerely held religious belief became the primary standard for determining what legally counts as authentic religion.
McCrary skillfully traces the interlocking histories of American sincerity, religion, and secularism starting in the mid-nineteenth century. He analyzes a diverse archive, including Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man, vice-suppressing police, Spiritualist women accused of being fortune-tellers, eclectic conscientious objectors, secularization theorists, Black revolutionaries, and anti-LGBTQ litigants. Across this history, McCrary reveals how sincerity and sincerely held religious belief developed as technologies of secular governance, determining what does and doesn’t entitle a person to receive protections from the state.
This fresh analysis of secularism in the United States invites further reflection on the role of sincerity in public life and religious studies scholarship, asking why sincerity has come to matter so much in a supposedly “post-truth” era.


"McCrary casts this complex subject in a new light. Readers will gain valuable insights into the politics of religion in America."

Publisher's Weekly

"McCrary argues that the American legal system has impoverished our idea of religion by equating it with 'sincerely held belief.' In so doing, it has stripped religion of its communal elements. . . This is an essential text for understanding the current struggles over religious freedom."

The Christian Century

"Comprehensive, thought-provoking . . . We should take note of McCrary’s call to interrogate this current legal framework and deconstruct, or at the very least, reexamine, our understanding of religious freedom."

Church & State Magazine / Americans United

"A detailed, but entertaining critical introduction to religion and the First Amendment in the United States . . . highly recommended."

Nova Religio

“Clear and compelling . . . this book is important reading for anyone seeking an understanding of the problems of religious freedom . . . a fascinating contribution to scholarship on secularism in the United States.”

American Religion

"Such an interesting book. A book that really is hard to characterize. It's about religion and law in the US. It's about the history of the sincerity test. It's about secularism and what it means or doesn't mean to be a secular person in what is supposed to be a secular country."

Straight White American Jesus

"A clever, well-crafted account of American secularism, religion, and sincerity. . . McCrary’s writing is a delight to read (as are his many 'sincere' footnotes), and students and scholars from a range of disciplines will find this book to be a highly engaging text, one that is challenging in the best of ways."

Reading Religion

"A sweeping, fascinating and engaging account of how American secularism created the ‘character of the sincere believer’ and cast ‘sincerely held religious belief’ as constitutive of religion in law and the standard by which certain practices are rejected ‘as not truly religious.’ . . . The book may well become indispensable. . . A rich, engrossing, fresh and enlivening addition to the field.”

Journal for the Academic Study of Religion

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New Books Network

"Charles McCrary’s brilliant Sincerely Held shows the declining fortunes of truth and the steadily appreciating value of sincerity to be sides of a single American coin.  As the acceptable face of religion under secular law, sincerity severs belief from veracity, hedges it with protections, and exempts it from democratic accountability.  McCrary’s genealogy of sincerity moves deftly among con artists, purveyors and suppressors of vice, war resisters, and conscientious objectors to secular law to show sincerely held belief to be a technology of racial governance and an engine of state violence.  Remarkably, he excavates from the same history the radical possibility that sincerely held belief might yet be summoned to advance good-faith engagement across differences rather than shut it down.  A book of uncommon intelligence, daring, grace, and verve, Sincerely Held is cultural criticism a secular age deserves."

Tracy Fessenden, Arizona State University

"Anyone interested in the politics of U.S. religion must grab a copy of Sincerely Held. Over eight chapters populated with con artists, credulous dupes, earnest petitioners, conscientious objectors, indignant inmates, principled paper-pushers, and discriminating judges, McCrary sketches the multifaceted and mercurial figure of the true believer. And just as the legal category of sincerely held belief imagines a world of external guises and hidden truths, McCrary skillfully balances his main text with illuminating discursive footnotes that both perform and subvert the practices of disclosure he so ably describes. Others have written convincingly about the form of secularism, but McCrary captures its irregularly beating heart."

Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

"McCrary’s incisive study of secularism and the secular brings to life the paradoxes of religion and law in the U.S. His colorful characters come from literature, legal proceedings, and even bureaucratic forms to illuminate how sincerity became a legal category and what that means for law’s imagination of religion."

Sarah Imhoff, Indiana University, Bloomington

This is a riveting cultural history of that strange and peculiarly American character: the “sincere religious believer.” Indeed, one of the many strengths of this fascinating and utterly persuasive book, is the way Charles McCrary defamiliarizes the secular obviousness of both “sincere believers” and “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Braiding together 19th-century worries over con-men and charlatans with a series of 20th-century legal cases that sought to distinguish the religious from the not-religious, McCrary demonstrates the secular state’s increasing reliance on sincerity—ascertaining it, measuring it—as a way to sort true from false (including the religiously false). In so doing, McCrary reveals religious sincerity’s crucial role in both secular governance and racial formation. At a time when sincerely held religious beliefs are increasingly invoked by Christian conservatives to justify limits on women’s reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ equality, Sincerely Held is bracing and urgent reading.

Ann Pellegrini, New York University

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Character of American Secularism
1 Knaves, Fools, and Sincere Believers
2 Secular Governance in Columns and Rows
3 Telling Fortunes
4 “Religious Training and Belief”
5 Supreme Beings and the Supreme Court
6 Believing Religiously
7 Troubling Secularism
8 Sincerity Now
Epilogue: On Being Sincere

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