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Justine S. Murison, Faith in Exposure: Privacy and Secularism in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023, ISBN : 978151282351 (hardcover), 9781512823523 (e-book), $ 55.00.
Ashley C. Barnes
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Justine S. Murison, Faith in Exposure: Privacy and Secularism in the Nineteenth-Century United States, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023, ISBN : 978151282351 (hardcover), 9781512823523 (e-book)

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1Justine Murison’s Faith in Exposure is an accomplished work of literary history. But perhaps its most striking payoff for an American reader right now is its account of how the conceptualization of privacy in the nineteenth-century United States shaped religious freedom and reproductive freedom into equal and opposite claims. Private religion has become the most successful tool to constrain other people’s private sexuality. As Murison notes at the outset, that was the rationale for the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that a Christian-identified employer need not include birth control in their employees’ health insurance. We can observe the same logic applied in arguments before the Court in December 2022 from a Colorado web designer who pre-emptively refused to design online wedding pages for same-sex couples on the grounds that to do so would betray her Christian faith. Privacy, as it is understood by Americans, makes religion and sex the elements of our lives that are simultaneously most hidden but most publicly weaponized, most free but most finely scrutinized. Murison’s book explains how that happened in a series of deft and illuminating readings of novels, periodicals, letters, and legal decisions from roughly 1790 to 1890.

2The book is not a legal history, though it aims to build a backstory for the jurisprudence on privacy that continues to play out today. Nor is it a religious history, though it analyzes Protestantism as the engine of a secular regime that has ordered our notions of selfhood. Faith in Exposure is a deeply historicized literary study, built on close readings of fiction and other print media. Murison’s data set includes the literary and the extraliterary in roughly equal measure, but she grants novels a certain pride of place within the discourse under consideration. The chapters are chronologically sequenced and thematically organized. The first chapter, “Infidelity,” reads the pamphlet war over Thomas Paine’s and Thomas Jefferson’s deism alongside Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond (1799) and Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (1797). Further chapters treat, for example, “Matrimony” (reading the development of free-love utopian communities with Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Redwood [1824] and its uneasy portrayal of Shaker celibacy), “Nudity” (reading the critique of missionary uplift in Herman Melville’s Typee [1846] with debates about women’s dress), and “Conspiracy” (reading the depiction of the outrages visited on a free Black community in Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends [1857] with white activists’ polemics against interracial marriage).

3The novel has long been seen as a participant in secularism, as in classic studies by Ian Watt and Georg Lukács. But current scholars understand the supposed disenchanted humanism achieved by the secular as a cover story for a Protestant moral order. Privacy, according to Murison, partakes of an American secularism that is in fact thoroughly Protestant. It is Protestantism that invests equally in private revelation and in the public performance of one’s “state of grace” (6). Novels aid and abet this program by training readers to seek total alignment between private and public, cultivating the “sentimental-realist” assumption that outward behavior indexes inward conviction. Novels further train their readers in the pleasures of exposure by letting them savor the chance to spot mismatches between inside and outside, to enjoy “the good feeling” that comes from reading the “signs” of another’s “immoral private life” (159). Such fictional procedures would also shape the way Samuel Douglas and Louis Brandeis formulated the right to privacy in 1890, Murison’s stopping point.

4In some cases, Murison positions the fiction as straightforwardly furthering the campaign for secular privacy, as when she reads Sedgwick’s Redwood as yoking the purity of private religion to the sanctity of private marriage. Other novels are granted subversive powers. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends uses “rhetorical modes that partake in subterfuge” (121) to resist the demand for exposure that fed white supremacist conspiracy theories. The Scarlet Letter (1850), discussed in the introduction and conclusion, shows Nathaniel Hawthorne rebuking the popular appetite for proof of hypocrisy, allowing Reverend Dimmesdale to keep his secret. And in The Bostonians (1886), Henry James “complicates” the workings of secular privacy by showing how secrecy becomes a valued source of self-consciousness (206). As Murison writes, Verena Tarrant’s attraction to Basil Ransom “feels truer because of its secrecy” (207). But her education in full public/private alignment means that she cannot keep that secret for long. She must match her inner life to her social behavior. As Murison argues, Verena’s marriage to Basil is not “a ‘conversion’ to new ideas,” a decision that the suffragist cause she had espoused is wrong, but rather the resolution of identity required by “a world structured around the dialectic between secrecy and privacy” (207).

5That point rests on the fascinating paradox that Murison’s book argues: that in the nineteenth-century imagination, privacy depends on exposure. Privacy abhors secrecy, in Murison’s genealogy; secrets must be exposed and expelled “in a quest to keep privacy morally pure” (181). Hypocrisy is the gravest sin that can be committed under this regime, and the greatest feeling of sanctity, accordingly, is to be found in calling out someone else’s false front. Privacy, then, incites the exposure of rule-breakers, those who disregard the categories of public versus private or who fail to match their inside with their outside lives. If privacy is the place where the purportedly authentic self lives, it must be sustained by public gestures that prove one’s intimate life aligns with public norms of morality. Privacy develops as something like a state of mind that is collectively enforced. It “encapsulates the feelings, beliefs, affects, and passions that constitute an ‘authentic’ self” (11).

6Insofar as Faith in Exposure is an argument against faith in exposure, it also conjures a backstory for the last couple decades’ worth of literary critics’ suspicion of suspicion. Murison could be seen as aligning with advocates for surface or reparative reading, like Rita Felski or Eve Sedgwick, respectively. She demonstrates that symptomatic and paranoid reading methods were deployed in print media long before Paul Ricoeur named the hermeneutics of suspicion. In one fascinating section (among many such), Murison juxtaposes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s exposure of Lord Byron’s incest with the coverage of Henry Ward Beecher’s trial for adultery. Both cases pitted surface reading against symptomatic reading. Stowe presents Manfred as an irrefutable if “inadvertent revelation” of Byron’s secret sin (186); defenders of Byron retorted that he would never be so obvious if he were committing incest. In the adultery trial, a letter from Beecher that spoke of living on a “ragged edge” was submitted as proof of his guilty conscience. Beecher’s counterclaim that he was simply describing church conflicts was not seen as plausible. But when testimony was offered that Beecher had been more direct in confessing sexual sin, that too was seen as implausible because it was too explicit.

7What Murison shows here, as elsewhere in the book, is that for the maintenance of the secular sensibility that is privacy, it does not much matter what facts, if any, are exposed. What matters is the unveiling gesture that boosts one’s sense of righteousness. If “the secular sensibility of privacy” depends for its power on the discovery of immoral secrets, it must “feel revelatory”; if it is too obvious, “it can no longer be exposed and therefore either loses its illicitness or seems utterly improbable” (195). Here again Murison’s account feels like a backstory for recent U.S. politics, explaining why the obviousness of Donald Trump’s transgressions—his saying the quiet part out loud, as the phrase goes—has been so easy to absorb.

8All of this is not to say that Faith in Exposure abandons suspicion. Murison’s book does want to expose the false promise of secularized Protestant toleration. It joins the secular studies project, established by scholars like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood over the last two decades, of dismantling the longstanding narrative that modernity banished religion to the safe space of people’s inner lives. We may think privacy is the sanctuary where our presumably least rational, religious and sexual, desires are harbored. But as Murison shows, such free and private desires were protected only insofar as they motivated public performances of white heterosexual monogamy. When claims to act on desire or faith were made by free-love advocates, Mormons, or Blacks (to name a few examples Murison studies), these were answered by asserting that anything other than white monogamous domesticity was primitive. This was not an argument on logic or merits, but a judgment by the secular order—in other words, by a white Protestant elite—about who belongs in modern society. In this way, secular studies may be seen as the vanguard of the long-running critique of enlightenment and of the liberal subject.

9Murison’s book is a richly detailed and sensitively observed addition to that critique. She shows us that secularity’s version of privacy is a “biopolitical condition,” one “that has meant, historically, the exposure of some and the protection of others, demarcated along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion” (212). In fiction as in print media more generally, the bodies of women (as in the city mystery genre), and the bodies of nonwhites (as in Melville’s Typee), were rendered as suspect and disorderly, showing that “the faith in the moral work of exposure” was most effectively wielded by those who already had the power to expose others (116). Authentic selfhood was credited most of all to white men: it was celebrated in John Brown, whereas Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe were called hypocrites for alluding to white men’s sexual abuse of Black women. In The Garies and Their Friends, free Blacks who dress and act the part of the morally transparent citizen are still denied the benefits of social standing that were supposed to accrue from adhering to the norms of privacy. Whiteness is what really guarantees one’s privacy. That point was made clear by “New York physician and general gadfly,” David Meredith Reese, who decried interracial marriage on grounds that (in Murison’s gloss) “liberal society is also white society” (128).

10White-on-white union also had to be protected from religious minorities that advocated marrying not at all or too much. The celibate Shakers were deemed “not properly private” because they failed to manage “the sexual and spiritual acts of married couples and their families” within the newly designated zone of domesticity (72). Even worse was Mormon polygamy, which entailed a “threat to secular modernity itself” because marriage had been equated with “the seat of moral identity and thus the social stability of a modern secular society” (80). Marriage is a continual public performance of both religious and sexual freedom, the ceremony that puts a holy stamp on profane desire. It is also the legal partnership where economic and social life join, attaching one’s chance of happiness to one’s consent to private contract. If marriage had been a “known and coercive public relationship” (citing Hendrik Hartog, 61) in the first half of the nineteenth century, it would become something more like a psychological value in the latter half, as articulated in the 1878 Supreme Court ruling that banned Mormon polygamy. This was a postbellum embellishment of a longstanding conflation of marital and religious fidelity, wherein a person’s sexual continence and religious orthodoxy were routinely paralleled. In this way, “marriage as an intimate contract that precedes civil society will become doxa in liberal secularism,” and “private marriage” would be elevated on the same grounds as “private religion” (29).

11It is not that surprising, then, that the right to privacy would be conceived in terms of the freedom of a white married man. As Murison says toward the book’s end, it would be such a man’s sensibility, his projected inner life, that Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis would in 1890 name the “inviolate personality.” Aiming to distinguish the right to privacy from a right to property, they specified “the value of sensations” (qtd 209) by proposing that a husband and father needs to have his “[t]houghts, emotions, and sensations” (qtd 209-210) protected. That meant, for example, protecting his freedom to dine without his wife and without tabloids getting hold of that information. That is Warren and Brandeis’s first what-if, and it shows, as Murison says, how their logic “depends on the privatization of marriage and its conflation with morality” (208). Their argument pushes the secularization narrative insofar as Warren and Brandeis present privacy as a modern right, an evolution from quantifying material loss to protecting a more civilized emotional life. In sum, “Warren and Brandeis […] arrived at privacy via the secularization of the spiritual, its conflation with the domestic sphere and, most importantly, a deep, authentic self” (210). But as Murison shows, this vision of privacy—with all its paradoxes and inequalities—had been developing for a hundred years prior.

12Is there an alternative to this version of privacy and its dependence on the drive to expose Protestant-designated sins? Murison argues that Frank Webb’s novel manages to outwit “white supremacist surveillance”—essentially another name for secular privacy—“not merely by marshaling ‘more facts’ but by exploring other rhetorical modes,” like “irony and sarcasm,” as a “means of confronting the stalemate of exposé and conspiracy theory” (135, 121). Irony escapes the promised gotcha of revelation because to explain it is to lose the joke. Yet Murison sees the value of exposure, and of privacy. Faith in Exposure itself depends on exposing the hypocrisies of secularism. In the book’s epilogue, Murison wishes that Americans’ rights as persons should depend not on exposing ourselves to prove that our private and public lives match up, but on our asserting our “dignity” and “equality before the law” (218)—thus sustaining our capacity to have a genuinely private life beyond surveillance.

13It seems to me, too, that Faith in Exposure could also be read as advocating for a truer secularism. The secularization thesis, that idea that religion had been subtracted from public life, has been deconstructed not only by the work of excellent scholars but by the rightward tilt in American (and, indeed, global) politics. An ever more obvious Christian rule in the United States makes Murison’s book not just relevant but urgent. This Court, for instance, sees prayer at a public high school football game as a “private, personal and quiet” exercise of faith; that is only one of a “series of Supreme Court decisions systematically eroding the sometimes-maligned ‘wall’ of separation between church and state,” as Lawrence Tribe puts it (that first phrase is from the 2022 Kennedy ruling, quoted by Tribe in the New York Review of Books, 22 Sept 2022, 83). As much as the secular sensibility of privacy has served the purposes of patriarchy and white supremacy, as much as Protestantism fooled us into thinking that religion disappeared from public life, it is no comfort to see the Court expose secularism as a sham.

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Ashley C. Barnes, « Justine S. Murison, Faith in Exposure: Privacy and Secularism in the Nineteenth-Century United States »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ashley C. Barnes

University of Texas, Dallas

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