Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004, ISBN 0805074422) 417 pp. Cloth $27.50.
Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism is the freethought book of the year.
Make that the decade. OK, the century.
The twenty-first century may be young, but it’s hard to believe anyone is going to top this achievement within the next ninety-six years. In Freethinkers, Jacoby succeeds in reclaiming a lost freethought heritage while boldly and without apology defending the secular state.
Jacoby takes aim at what she calls the “religiously correct” version of American history. Often promoted by TV preachers and their fundamentalist allies in politics, this skewed tale of America emphasizes the views of religious believers while downplaying or ignoring the considerable accomplishments of Enlightenment-era thinkers who dared to challenge the regressive political spawn of ultra-conservative Christianity.
And what were those achievements? For starters, little things called the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the very idea of religious freedom. Jacoby rightly notes that Enlightenment champions like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson cannot take all the credit for religious liberty in America and its attendant wall of separation between church and state—but they certainly played a major role. In a marriage that seems unimaginable today, religious skeptics like Jefferson joined forces with dissenting evangelical leaders to secure religious freedom. Once their rights were secure, many evangelicals became less passionate about defending religious liberty. As their numbers grew, they gradually switched sides.
Not so the freethinkers. Freethought support for complete intellectual and religious liberty was based on principle, not pragmatism. The divide was to make freethinkers and evangelicals, once partners, bitter foes in the years to come.
In telling this history, Jacoby discusses well-known religious skeptics like Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. But what makes Freethinkers so engaging is that she resurrects a long-forgotten pantheon of heroes who by all rights should be equally celebrated today.
Does the name William Bentley ring a bell? What about Ernestine L. Rose? Philo D. Beckwith, anyone? Why have even so many freethinkers forgotten these pioneers? Jacoby has a theory: their religious skepticism made them unpalatable to the nineteenth-century mind, so their accomplishments were simply ignored.
Freethought’s great legacy was buried under an avalanche of post-Civil War revisionism that sought to portray America as a “Christian nation.” The irony is rich. As Jacoby points out, many conservative Protestant ministers at the time the Constitution was ratified were furious that the document contained no references to God. That omission, by the way, was deliberate—and the religious Right of Jefferson’s day knew it. In fact, it drove them batty. One minister, John M. Mason, charged that the failure to appease the Almighty in the Constitution would lead to the destruction of the new nation. “We will have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck,” Mason groused in one sermon.
Ministers of the founding period knew that the country had been given a “god-less Constitution.” They believed the governing charter was defective because of the omission. Their spiritual descendants, today’s religious Right and the TV preachers, have turned history on its head by insisting, against all available evidence, that the Constitution somehow perpetuates a Christian order.
Jacoby outlines a rich legacy of free-thought that can point with pride to important achievements in U.S. history. In the nineteenth century, secularists demanded an end to slavery, championed women’s rights, fought religiously based censorship of literature, and advocated for the right of adults to use birth control, despite fierce clerical opposition. In short, religious skeptics laid the groundwork for the modern era—but how many people know that today?
A good example of how the “religiously correct” have rewritten history is found in the long-running battle over slavery. It’s well known that many ministers in the South used the Bible to buttress slavery. Northern churches, we are told, vociferously opposed slavery. Actually, Jacoby points out, many churches in the North avoided the issue for fear of offending their coreligionists in the South.
The same pattern emerged in the modern era. Jacoby notes that during the civil-rights movement, many of the freedom riders, including some who gave their lives, were freethinkers. While opposition to Jim Crow laws in the South was anchored in black churches, many northern religious leaders had to be persuaded to speak out and did so with great reluctance. Some never did. When those who condemned Jim Crow did speak out, they added a powerful moral voice—but they were echoing, not leading, freethinkers.
The situation in many Southern churches was much worse. Many conservative, White religious leaders in the South, Jacoby writes, were simply on the wrong side of the issue. “One of the more repellent ironies of modern religious correctness has been the attempt by fundamentalists to wrap themselves in the mantle of those men and women of faith who risked their lives to fight racism,” Jacoby writes. “In the sixties, right-wing fundamentalists were, almost without exception, hardcore segregationists. They attacked the twentieth-century civil rights movement as their spiritual actual ancestors had attacked the nine-teenth-century abolitionists’ and feminists’ movements. What they saw was what their predecessors had seen—not a struggle for justice but a conspiracy of atheism, political radicalism, and sexual libertinism.”
Jacoby reminds readers that the separation of church and state was essential to the success of the civil-rights movement. Would black churches, she asks, have been able to challenge government-enforced segregation if they had been dependent on government funding “doled out for ‘faith-based initiatives’—either by federal officials, who were at best lukewarm supporters of civil rights, or by southern satraps, who were usually the deadly adversaries of their black citizens?”
After a while, the reader begins to see a pattern emerge: Freethinkers and secularists begin advocating for an idea that seems absurd to the larger conservative and religious society—emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage, a repeal of Sunday-closing laws, an end to censorship, and so on. They are ignored and vilified but keep agitating. Eventually, liberal-minded religious believers and non-Christians come aboard. More time passes, and more agitation occurs. The day arrives when the offensive laws are changed and the objective is reached. At that point, the fundamentalists either claim they agreed all along (as in the case of abolishing slavery) or dig in and stubbornly rail against the modern world (as in the case of the theory of evolution being taught in public schools).
What Jacoby points out, without ever actually being so blunt, is that all history is a struggle between forces of progress and reaction. Few examples illustrate this better than the battle over censorship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jacoby notes that censorship in this era was not limited to works deemed indecent or obscene; it often included freethought literature as well. Religious groups had the power to compel government to censor “dangerous” ideas, and they used it.
Jacoby writes of the havoc wrought by the “nineteenth century thought police,” with their sheer determination to keep certain books and magazines out of the hands of the people. Backed by the Comstock laws, religious censors enjoyed great success until secularists put an end to their reign of prudery and made it possible for people to read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
But as anyone who reads newspapers knows, that battle is far from over. Today’s religious Right lusts for the type of power the Comstock-era clergy had. They’d like to get back to the nineteenth century and actively work toward that goal. Progress fights reaction over and over.
Fundamentalists, Jacoby notes, learn from their setbacks—while freethinkers sometimes become complacent by victory. Her analysis of the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925 is especially useful. The conventional wisdom is that, while teacher John Scopes did lose the case at the trial court, the fundamentalists really lost in the court of public opinion because they were exposed as backwoods rubes with unscientific ideas.
In fact, Jacoby notes, the fundamentalists emerged from the Scopes trial stronger than ever. They succeeded in getting textbook publishers to water down instruction about evolution and pressured educators to downplay the subject. (Sound familiar?) Jacoby writes, “In the decade after the trial, secularist civil libertarians were largely asleep at the switch while fundamentalists were extending their influence over public education.”
Secularists often make the mistake of assuming that progress will ultimately triumph over reactionary anti-intellectualism. Jacoby points out that progress wins only when viewed through the long arc of history. The forces of reaction are quite capable of winning victories and dragging the nation backward. Yes, those periods of regression can probably be reversed—but it can take years. In the meantime, people have to live through periods of ascendant reactionary fundamentalism.
In the end, Jacoby understands the need for a long-term strategy, a strategy that lays the groundwork for benefits that may not arrive until the next generation or even the one after that. Some secularist feminists, after all, began pushing for women’s suffrage as early as the first half of the nineteenth century, yet women did not gain access to the ballot nationwide until 1920.
By showing where secularists have been, Jacoby points the way to the future. Her summation is especially valuable. Jacoby shows how freethinkers, emboldened by their rich history of valuable service to America, can frame new arguments for the twenty-first century.
Freethinkers is a work of solid scholarship, thoroughly researched with endnotes and an excellent bibliography, but it utterly lacks a dry or turgid style. Indeed, Jacoby, a former reporter for The Washington Post who now runs the Center for Inquiry–Metro New York, writes in an engaging and entertaining manner. The book is a pleasure to read.
Buy Freethinkers. Read it. Celebrate it. But best of all, remain true to the spirit of the book by letting it inspire you to stand up against the forces of reactionary political fundamentalism. After all, that’s what your nonspiritual forebears did.
Rob Boston is the assistant editor of Church & State, published by Ameri cans United for Separation of Church and State.