From Publishers Weekly
Is America really one nation under God? Not according to Pulitzer Prizefinalist Jacoby (Wild Justice, etc.), who argues that it is America's secularist "freethinkers" who formed the bedrock upon which our nation was built. Jacoby contends that it's one of "the great unresolved paradoxes" that religion occupies such an important place in a nation founded on separation of church and state. She traces the role of "freethinkers," a term first coined in the 17th century, in the formation of America from the writing of the Constitution to some of our greatest social revolutions, including abolition, feminism, labor, civil rights and the dawning of Darwin's theory of evolution. Jacoby has clearly spent much time in the library, and the result is an impressive literary achievement filled with an array of both major and minor figures from American history, like revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Robert Green Ingersoll. Her historical work is further flanked by current examplesthe Bush White House in an introduction and the views of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in a final chapterthat crystallize her concern over secularism's waning influence. Unfortunately, Jacoby's immense research is also the book's Achilles heel. Her core mission to impress upon readers the historical struggle of freethinkers against the religious establishment is at times overwhelmed by the sheer volume of characters and vignettes she offers, many of which, frankly, are not very compelling. Still, Jacoby has done yeoman's work in crafting her message that the values of America's freethinkers belong "at the center, not in the margins" of American life.
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*Starred Review* Jacoby reclaims a key facet of American culture, secularism, or freethinking, the belief that public good is "based on human reason and human rights rather than divine authority," a concept codified in the Constitution's separation of church and state. Veteran author Jacoby feels that now is the perfect time for a thorough reexamination of America's secular tradition because, as she documents, it is being severely eroded by the politics of the Christian Right. Her cogent and engaging narrative presents myriad neglected yet significant historical episodes and compelling profiles of such clarion freethinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Walt Whitman, and John F. Kennedy. Jacoby reveals how the abolitionist and women's rights movements, archetypal freethinking efforts, challenged orthodox religious institutions as obstacles to social reform, and she dissects the church's role in organized censorship and negative impact on public education, especially its opposition to the teaching of evolution. As Jacoby critiques the rise of religious correctness and tracks President Bush's assault on the line between church and state, she reminds readers that humanist values are the bedrock of democracy. Enlightening, invigorating, and responsibly yet passionately argued, Jacoby's unparalleled history of American secularism offers a much needed perspective on today's most urgent social issues. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved