Freethinkers


Susan Jacoby

2004

Revisionist histories, books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, restage the “official story” of American history in new terms, from non-traditional points of view.

In Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, author Susan Jacoby has written not so much a revised but a neglected history — the story of the forgotten, maligned, or neutered American thinkers and activists who fought over two centuries to establish and preserve the fundamental distinction between church and state which leads Jacoby to characterize the United States as “the world’s first secular democracy.”

(Another Susan Jacoby book, The Age of American Unreason, will be the subject of a post here in the near future. I don’t often read two books by one writer at the same time, but in this case it’s been very enjoyable.)

One of Jacoby’s major themes in Freethinkers, like those of a number of books of social history published during the administration of George W. Bush, is that the dangerous anti-secular trends of the present call for a return to the principled secular heroism of the past.

For this reason, despite its scholarship, Jacoby’s book is less an academic history than it is an admiring portrait of American freethinkers who, like Wordsworth’s Milton, “should’st be living at this hour.”

As she writes in the Introduction:

These values belong at the center, not in the margins, of the public square. It is past time to restore secularism, and its noble and essential contributions to every stage of the American experiment, to its proper place in our nation’s historical memory and vision of the future.

Jacoby’s book is organized chronologically: the Founders’ explicit separation of church and state, Civil War abolitionists and early feminists, the “Golden Age of Freethought” in the second half of the 19th century, the first Red Scare after the Russian Revolution, the rise of activist Catholic anti-communism in the 1930’s, the censorship of the secular arts and popular entertainments of the post-War 50’s, the “culture wars” of the 60’s and 70’s — capped with a warning that the current activism of the “religiously correct” threatens to overwhelm constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and erase in practice if not in law the separation of church and state which made American freethinking possible.

Freethinkers is filled with accounts of the lives, principles, and careers of secularists both famous and obscure, celebrated and hated, misrepresented and suppressed. Here are familiar freethinking heroes –Jefferson, Emerson, and Darrow — but also an unknown side of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, the maligned and marginalized Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the utterly forgotten Robert Nash Baldwin, founder of the ACLU. Demonized freethinkers like Thomas Paine and modern day anti-religious crusaders like Madalyn Murray O’Hair are here, too, minus the revisionism and ad hominem attacks with which they are typically encumbered.

While Jacoby spends much time interestingly chronicling the ceaseless efforts of religious activists from early fundamentalists to media stars Fulton Sheen and Norman Vincent Peale, the book’s real fascination lies in the discovery, or rediscovery, of America’s great freethinkers.

Jefferson, who was attacked (incorrectly) as an “atheist” in his 1800 election campaign, is restored to his place as the pre-eminent Revolutionary freethinker. It is his description of the Constitution raising “a wall between church and state” which has been the best and longest-lasting metaphor for the Founders’ intention to keep the church — any church — out of the halls of government. Jacoby provides the interesting and seldom-encountered “back story” of the politics surrounding the adoption of the separation principle, explaining that early fundamentalist churches, fearful of the power of the larger and more established denominations, backed Jefferson and the other Deists and, ironically, ensured that the United States would be a secular nation.

This kind of fascinating secondary detail is found throughout Jacoby’s accounts. There’s far too much to include here, but two of the more notable narratives cover the complex and often contradictory relationship between mid-19th century abolitionists and early feminists, and the doctrinal and political motivations of the increasingly powerful and influential American Catholic church of the 1930’s. These and other explanations provide an illuminating explanatory context for the individual stories of the book’s secular heroes.

One of those heroes who was not entirely unfamiliar to me is Robert Ingersoll, the late 19th century’s “Great Agnostic.” His long and distinguished career as the most prominent anti-religionist of his time, as perhaps the most celebrated agnostic in American history, has been systematically ignored by more conventional histories. It’s too bad, but there’s good news in the knowledge that his major writings and most important speeches have been preserved and are available from any number of (mostly online) sources. Ingersoll’s “Why I Am an Agnostic” should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t understand how someone could “reject” God.

The same forces of religious fundamentalism against which Jefferson, Madison, and the other anti-establishment Founders fought are still with us, and Jacoby ends her book with a call for present-day secularists to rise up and reclaim their tradition. If the religious right has turned “secularist” into too negative a word, Jacoby writes, then return to the positive thrust of a more proactive word — freethinker.

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