This article employs the trinary framework to interrogate American religious freedom and religious actors’ interaction with the us state. It focuses on issues of governance and the classification and management of state subjects and their activities, showing how these lived effects are entwined with more “academic” or intellectual concerns about the categories religion and superstition. The article uses “superstition” in two ways. First, it is a term many Americans, from jurists to popular writers to academics, have used to describe human activities, often with racial assumptions and implications built into the framework. Second, scholars today might use the term, as part of the trinary, as an analytical device. The argument is that because the United States guarantees religious freedom, the state (or, more specifically, a particular state agent) must classify beliefs and practices as religious. This leaves a third category of activities that are clearly not secular but are also not religious, because they are not protected. Thus, we might call this third category “superstition” or “the superstitious.” The article tests this framework with two brief case studies drawn from the early and late twentieth century, respectively.
Engaging with Logan’s third chapter, on the American Seamen’s Friends Society, this piece reflects on what it means to cringe in the context of a benevolent or charitable relationship. People cringe when they are made painfully aware of the gap between their self-conception (and/or their ideal self) and the way others perceive them. Logan shows us, in her study of the ASFS, the cringeworthy nature of antebellum benevolent societies: they learned about the objects of their benevolence (in this case, sailors), performed rituals alongside them, and attempted to befriend them, and yet they did not ultimately want to be them or be like them but, rather, to change them.