379 of 396 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2004
It could be that Susan Jacoby's latest book may finally put an end to the ignorance that most Americans exhibit about the role that secularism has played in the social, cultural, and political development of the United States. It is a fact that Americans are woefully deficient when it comes to knowledge about American history, a lack which permits those with specific socio-political agendas to perpetuate distortions about the part that secularism and religion played in the founding of this nation and continue to play in its evolution. This matter is especially crucial now because of the current issues surrounding church-state separation, including an important case soon to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The importance of Jacoby's book is that it fills a gap which for too long has existed in the study and presentation of American history. It is often forgotten (or ignored?) that America's evolution was influenced by two great traditions, not just one as so many cultural commentators have insisted. The Judaic-Christian religious tradition certainly had a major impact on the development of American moral thinking and practice. But, equally important if not more so, the pagan or secular Greco-Roman tradition had its impact on the formation of American political institutions and the development of American jurisprudence. Many books have been written about the Judaic-Christian contributions (regrettably, some historically inaccurate), but the pagan-secular contributions have tended to be either forgotten or ignored and this problem has now been corrected by Jacoby's treatise.
Generally speaking, "Freethinkers" is an historical survey of secularist thought and influence in American history with a special emphasis on the most important actors in this unfolding drama. Included are such luminaries as Thomas Paine, who is just now making a comeback into the American consciousness, Thomas Jefferson, a president who by all accounts seems to be more secular than religious and appears to be a true theological Deist contrary to the declarations of many fundamentalist Christians, Abraham Lincoln, a president who was skeptical of Christianity and denied its divine origins, and Robert Ingersoll, an American philosopher whose absence from virtually all textbooks of American history is a national disgrace.
I must commend Jacoby for bringing Robert Green Ingersoll back into the limelight. Known in the latter half of the 19th century as that "Great Agnostic," Ingersoll was truly one of the philosophical giants of that period. He has been largely ignored throughout the 20th century. During my entire academic studies in philosophy, no mention was ever made of him. I took a graduate course in American philosophy without hearing his name. I took undergraduate courses in various periods of American history and never heard a reference to him. I discovered this once-influential philosopher later when I was doing some independent work in American social thought. My reaction, after studying and reading him, was how shameful it is that this man was not better known to students today. Thanks to Jacoby for bringing him back into his rightful place in the American story. This is just one of the many highlights of her book.
One of the basic questions which is continually debated asks "Is America a Christian nation." The secularists say "No." What has come to be called the "Christian Right" says "Yes." Now, both can't be correct within the same context. Jacoby argues that America was founded as a secular government. I suggest she is correct regarding this point. The Christian Right argues that America is a Christian nation. I suggest they are correct regarding this point. What appears at first glance to be a contradiction is not once we become aware of the context. Statistically, most Americans consider themselves to be Christians and, in this sense, America is a Christian nation. However, our government was never set up as a "Christian government," a theocracy where the church, of whatever denomination, would dominate socio-political policy. As Jacoby rightly points out, the Constitution never mentions God and, furthermore, the Declaration of Independence mentions only "nature's God," a reference that can be reasonably interpreted as Deistic.
Jacoby covers much territory in her book beginning with the intense debate over the omission of God from the Constitution and moving from 19th century abolitionism and suffragism through the 20th century's civil liberties, civil rights, and feminist movements. She includes the major characters involved in secular activism, like those already mentioned above, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clarence Darrow and others whose importance to secularist philosophy are finally acknowledged. She offers a powerful defense of the secularist heritage that gave Americans a government founded not on religious authority but on human reason.
If I have a negative criticism, it is this: I don't think Jacoby presents a clear characterization of moral relativism; I suspect she has not really thought out all the implications of that concept. The secularists are wrong because they deny any objective moral criteria and promote moral judgments within a political context, while the religionists are wrong because they promote a revelation-based moral absolutism applied to all human acts. The concept of moral relativism is generally misunderstood, even among intellectuals, and objective criteria for determining ethical principles is usually confused with some sort of moral absolutism. The beauty and truth of Aristotle's "Ethics," for instance, lies precisely in the fact that it is neither absolutist nor relativist, but provides an objective foundation for evaluating human acts.
I do hope that this book is widely read by a public whose knowledge of American history is, unfortunately, dismal. This is a great introduction to a cultural influence which has been largely forgotten or ignored. It is a great addition to any course or study in American history which wants to present itself as truly comprehensive. I also recommend this book because it provides a counterbalance to a traditionally one-sided picture of how this great nation of ours came into being and evolved to bring more freedom and opportunity to more people than any other nation that has ever existed.
279 of 292 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2004
I've just finished reading this title, which I would best describe as a very important, thoroughly readable expose of our free-thinking history and the relentless, repetitive attempts to undermine that tradition. It's probably the most thought-provoking book I've read since Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club (If you haven't read it already, look it up), the author of which seems to share the same enlightenment bent as Jacoby. As you can tell, that philosophy reflects my world view as well. In fact, the only downside of this book is that you're most likely to enjoy and appreciate it if you, like me, already consider yourself a free-thinking, secular rationalist with an "enlightenment" perspective on history, including a strong belief in the separation of church and state. If you are a member of the Christian right, you will probably throw this book into the fireplace after the first few chapters (That would be the only alternative to having your views on the mixture of politics and religion painstakingly and devastastingly revealed as narrow-minded and undemocratic).
This is a "history" book, and rarely strays from the rationalist, dispassionate course you'd expect, but Jacoby's personal views are made amply clear: church and state were always meant to be and should remain separate institutions under our system of government. It's great to have someone like Jacoby on this (my) side, and to put it in print for the record, because she masterfully and precisely conveys the facts of history which, to put it plainly, make her opponents look silly.
For a few examples, she:
-catalogs a long litany of misdeeds and injustices that have been carried out in the name of religion, refuting the idea that religion is always a force for good in a political setting.
-successfully undermines, as others have done elsewhere, the idea that the Founding Fathers never intended for the wall between church and state to be applied as strongly as we have today.
-shows us that current secularist trends where they exist today have NOT arisen only since the 1960s after supposedly being drummed up by hare-brained, dope-smoking hippies who have infected our culture ever since. Instead, she shows us that there is a long, long secularist, even atheistic, tradition in America and that attempts to paint history otherwise are misguided. She instead reveals that the resurgence of the Christian right is just as much a product of "today." (It is only recently that all presidential candidates now publically affirm the strength of their religious faith in order to have any hope of being elected. Most in the past never discussed their faith.)
One final plug, the description of the Christian right "utopia" underpinning the culture wars (first two paragraphs of Chapter 7) is among the most eloquent expositions on the thought of mind of those in the Christian right movement I have ever encountered. If you only browse this book in a book store, I would have you take a look at those lines. Nothing else so pithily makes you realize the fundamental airiness of the contemporary movement to meld religion and politics.
106 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2004
"Freethinkers" is a worthwhile survey of the rich American metaphysical, spiritual, and philosophical heritage beyond the framework of organized religion. Although it has a number of shortcomings, Jacoby's spirited and opinionated overview serves as a corrective for the prevalent view that the history of the United States is that of a strictly "Christian nation" (whatever that term may mean).
The book is at its best when Jacoby discusses particular historical figures, treatises, movements, and events. She focuses on such stalwart and respected authorities as James Madison, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Robert Green Ingersoll, Margaret Sanger, and Clarence Darrow. These biographical accounts include generous excerpts from and perceptive analyses of their writings and speeches. The lives and works of freethinkers are examined in the context of various movements and events, including Deism, anticlericalism, abolitionism, the Civil War, feminism, the first Red Scare, the Scopes trial, the growth of Catholic influence in urban politics, and the culture wars of the last two decades.
Nearly all this history is told as a series of captivating biographies and trenchant stories, and the result is unusually accessible and pleasurable reading. There are also some truly memorable anecdotes: the bravery required by Angelina and Sarah Grimke to inveigh against slavery in an era when women did not make public speeches; the issuance of the two-cent piece in order to accommodate the request by a small cadre of Christians to add "In God We Trust" to the currency; the uproar that greeted the publication of "The Woman's Bible."
Jacoby does occasionally overreach; she has a tendency to assert all-encompassing theses and easy generalizations that teeter on the shaky basis of her random sampling of people and events. Thus, "the more conservative clergymen and established churches in the North were slow to condemn slavery outright, and even slower to endorse any economic or political action that might bring about [its} end." Such a polemical statement cannot be proved by the anecdotes Jacoby relates and the footnotes she includes, and the sociological evidence required to support this type of thesis is beyond the scope of her research. In a similar vein, she overuses such loaded and imprecise terms as "conservatives," "the clergy", "orthodoxy," and "mainstream religions," and her occasional attempts at qualification only underscore their vagueness.
In addition (as other reviewers and readers have noted), the book presents only secularism of a liberal bent; politically conservative freethought is ignored altogether. I have no love for Ayn Rand, but her secularist influence on American politics is undeniable (as the ascendancy of Alan Greenspan attests); inclusion of such obvious examples would have actually strengthened Jacoby's survey rather than diluted it.
Yet the fault for these deficiencies is not entirely Jacoby's: so little has been written for general readers concerning the history of American secularism that such simplifications and omissions are perhaps unavoidable in any lucid reassessment of the historical record. The guts of the book--its stories, its heroes, and its underlying premise--provide a fundamental understanding of the tradition of American liberty that cannot be undermined by any of its failings.
45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2008
....is secular government, the separation of church and state. Jefferson said it most eloquently when he spoke of a "wall of separation," and for once his actions fully complemented his words. Author Susan Jacoby recounts: "In 1799, Jefferson proposed a bill that would guarantee complete legal equality for citizens of all religions, and of no religion, in his home state of Virginia." Jefferson himself wrote that his bill "meant to comprehend, within the mantel of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel..." It took seven years of debate to pass Virginia's 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, urgently supported by James Madison but opposed by the Episcopalian and other mainline churches. Curiously, the "evangelical" Christian denominations of Virginia SUPPORTED this separation of church and state, seeing it as in their interest. Jacoby continues: the Jeffersonian Act, "much to the dismay of religious conservatives, would become the template for the secularist provisions of the federal Constitution." But the orator of freedom, Patrick Henry, who opposed Jefferson's Act with a counter-bill to assess taxes on all Virginians for the support of "teachers of the Christian religion," continued in opposition to the ratification of the Constitution.
Jefferson and Madison were recognized Freethinkers, commonly accused by their opponents of being atheists. "Freethinker" is a much more gracious term than the A-word, which has always been used dismissively and pejoratively. It was the term in common parlance, throughout most of America's history, for a menagerie of disbelievers in the established faiths: deists, universalists, agnostics, skeptics and honest atheists. Jacoby argues that it was an appropriate term in its times, and that "freethinkers" have until recently been significant players in the political and social development of the United States - among the leaders of reform movements including abolition, universal suffrage, women's rights, labor rights, and civil rights. It would not embarrass Ms. Jacoby to have it said plainly that she earnestly admires such freethinkers as Jefferson, Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abe Lincoln, the almost forgotten Ernestine Rose, Robert Ingersoll, Emma Goldman, John Dewey, and Clarence Darrow. Much of Joacoby's book is devoted to brief biographies of these crusading freethinkers.
An alternate title for this review might be "The Theocratically Incorrect Guide to American History." Jacoby insists, again and again, that the critical role of freethinkers and free thought movements in American history has been marginalized, deliberately at times, over the last 80 years of historiography. The greatest triumph of free thought, unfortunately, came first, with the writing of the Constitution on behalf of "We, the People" rather than "under God." Jacoby's discussion of the writing of the Constitution is one of the most lucid to be found. She calls attention, for instance to Article 6, section 3, which declares that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." That declaration preceded the First Amendment, of course, and set the character of the Constitution as a rigorously SECULAR plan of government, just as Jefferson and Madison intended.
Opposition to the ratification of the now-revered Constitution began immediately, and much of it focused on the absence of a theocratic acknowledgement of the Christian religion. In other words, the "culture wars" of today, between secularists and fundamentalists, are nothing new. The unfortunate part of the history, from Jacoby's point of view as well as mine, is that the freedoms guaranteed by the secular Constitution have been under mounting attack throughout the 20th Century and have been egregiously eroded in recent decades. Jacoby reveals plenty about the agents of erosion, the shifting alliances and oppositions of various segments of Protestantism, the role of racialists and eugenicists in discrediting free thought movements, the gradual shape-changing of Catholicism from a minority that cherished the protection of secular government to a potent interest-bloc set on legislating its version of civil society, and the eternal efforts of the religious conservatives to damn by association all liberals and all freethinkers as socialist/communist radicals. This is not a dispassionate account of history, not by any means, but it is an extremely well-researched and well-documented account.
If there's one book of American history that I urge everyone to read this year, Susan Jacoby's "Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism" is that book. Even readers who know in advance that they'll hate it, readers who know themselves to be enemies of secular humanism, owe it as a duty of conscience to read this forthright defense of America's greatest innovation, the separation of government from religion.
35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
There is a movement among atheists and agnostics to have themselves referred to as "brights". It is unnecessary. There has been for over three centuries the honorable and laudatory term "freethinker" to designate unbelievers. It often encompasses the beliefs of deists, so many of whom played a role in founding our nation. In _Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism_ (Metropolitan Books) by Susan Jacoby, both freethinkers and open-minded religious believers will find a history of remarkable contributions that freethought has brought to our nation over the centuries. Jacoby is squarely in the freethinker camp, and her book could be seen as one of advocacy, especially as she regards the current government and its faith-based programs. The history revealed here, however, shows that American freethinkers have been in the advanced guard of good ideas from resisting governmental religion through abolition through birth control. There are many who say that America's greatness lies in its religious devotion, but even if that is true, its nonbelievers helped found a nation where different religions could be expressed and tolerated, and they have continued to advocate religious civil rights to the current day.
Encroachments by those who want religion to be sponsored by government had been attempted long before the nation was founded; Patrick Henry himself introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would have taxed all citizens to support teachers of Christianity. Our Constitution quite famously has no reference to Jesus, or even to God, within it. The Founding Fathers invented the first government that was based on the consent of the governed and not on any claim to a divine foundation. This was quite deliberate; those at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia explicitly considered, and rejected, putting God in the document. It is little appreciated that the famous revolutionary Ethan Allen was strongly against organized religion; he wrote a summary of his beliefs in 1784 as _Reason the Only Oracle of Man_. More influential were the writings of the deist Tom Paine, frequently cited in these pages as a deist with a particular antipathy for the Bible and certitude that Christianity was a ridiculous distortion of true religion. Another freethinker looming large on these pages is Robert Ingersoll, "The Great Agnostic," a Civil War veteran, booster for the Republican party, and spellbinding orator. It is unimaginable that an avowed freethinker these days might be called upon by his party to speak to any political convention, but Republicans were eager to recruit Ingersoll's oratorical talents. Ingersoll and others were eager to fight censorship of Whitman's _Leaves of Grass_ or birth control information, and were on the front lines in the Civil Rights movement.
The tolerance expected by Jefferson ("It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.") has been a tradition among freethinkers, a tradition they have tried to get believers to extend even to other believers. A vicious wave of anti-Catholicism was set off when Al Smith in 1928 became the first Catholic presidential candidate. Freethinkers were ready to remind the rest of the nation that there was no religious requirement for office. One of Smith's most fervent defenders was Clarence Darrow, the nation's best-known agnostic since Ingersoll. Such admirable actions ought to be appreciated by everyone of any belief, but Jacoby has written a history; it is easy for any American to be grateful that freethinkers helped champion birth control or Whitman's poems long ago. These efforts were controversial at the time, and current freethinkers are subject to the same sort of scorn; consider the death threats that Madelyn Murray O'Hair and Michael Newdow have endured. Believers who follow Jacoby up through current times, however they might disagree with freethinkers on the ramparts of "Under God" in the pledge, stem cell research, or vouchers for religious schools, will have to agree that the freethinkers of the past have helped produce a freer and smarter society.
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
This book is one that tries to fill in a bit of missing history - missing, that is, in our highly charged and politicized culture. Contra those whos would have us believe that 'secularlists' and others who held non-conventional views on religious matters have been a force of evil in this country, Mrs. Jacoby shows that if anything, 'secularists' have quite a robust and proud history. We - yes, I am a secularist - have been as active a part of this country's history and direction as religious folk and, as Mrs. Jacoby argues in this engaging work, that history has been largely for the good.
Many have taken Mrs. Jacoby to be saying more than, I think, she is. By 'freethinker,' many assume 'atheist.' Mrs. Jacoby's use of the term is a bit broader; a freethinker is one who holds highly unconventional (in a literal sense) view on religion - from those who are out-and-out atheists, to deists, to - at this country's inception - universalists.
The point, rather, is to show that from its inception, this country has been founded on a radical idea; that government need not be 'under god;' it can remain secular (the word 'civil' was used during the founding to connote a non-sectarian government). From the founding (and I did find her arguments a little less than convincing) she moves on to a chapter on deist Thomas Paine, on the woman's movement (particularly Stanton and Anthony's agnosticism), the growth of secularism during the 20'S and 30's, and the battle with religion - particularly Catholicism - that it has fostered to this very day.
In a review that secularist Christopher Hitchens wrote, he criticized Jacoby for her seemingly exclusive linking of 'freethinking' with left-liberal causes. After reading the book, I think that in part this is justified. The dominant force in established religion has been Catholicism and Catholicism has always been (with few exceptions) conservative. It is undeniable that by history's lights, secularism generally HAS been more prevelant and visible on the left as a counterweight.
But in a sense, Hitchens is correct. When i finished the book, I felt that Mrs. Jacoby gave the impression that secularism has ALWYAYS been a left-liberal venture - that 'freethought' is a synonym for 'ACLU' What of Ayn Rand, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sidney Hook and the many others who supported libertarian or conservative causes while maintaining atheistic views? Hook particularly is a glaring ommission as he was an atheist who was instrumental in the fight against communism (so much so that a very religious President Reagan gave him a medal of freedom for his efforts - an atheist!)
This leads to another criticism. Like most any history, this one is quite selective. The chapter on Thomas Paine, for example, paints him as almost a demi-god; his historically acknowledge flaws - egotism, fondness for the drink, and overall 'rebel who needs a cause' rambunctiousness - are either ignored or cast aside with one-sentence 'brush offs.' Even secularist Bertrand Russell, when writing an essay on Paine, felt the need to mention Paine's bad spots. While Mrs. Jacoby has written a fine history, revisions like these (and virtual lack of citations when making contreversial claims) made me a bit trepidacious.
All in all though, this book is a very good one that lays out a sorely needed counter to Christian historians' assertions that atheists and freethinkers have had little to do with American history. This is simply not true and Jacoby shows it. She doesn't deny (who could?) that Christianity is an inextricable part of our history, but writes of the forgotten, yet abundant, examples of the contributions of freethought.
52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2004
Much of the religious freedom churchgoing U.S. citizens take for granted
would not exist were it not for the struggle of freethinkers - atheists,
agnostics, deists, rationalists, humanists - to make and keep the U.S. government secular.
The evangelical Christians and Catholics who now work to dissolve the walls
between church and state find it convenient to forget how the barrier they
despise once protected them from rich and politically powerful sects when
they were few in number, poor, and unwanted. Even more, they forget how
forbearers of the modern freethinkers they condemn so easily and hate so
much, men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Thomas Paine,
struggled and sometimes suffered to promote and defend the radical notion of
a government neutral in religion which respects everyone by not elevating
one belief above another.
If you are a non-religious American, this gift to the world is your
heritage. It is one to be proud of.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2005
In her introduction, Ms. Jacoby discusses our government's reaction to the September 11 massacre, recalling that great care was taken to avoid offending anyone's religious sensibilities while officials and clergy struggled (futilely) to rationalize the obvious failure of divine authority to prevent the tragedy. On the other hand, she says, no effort whatsoever was made to explain or even mention the view held by her and millions of other Americans, namely that any interactive, rule-making, anthropomorphic god is extremely likely to be imaginary. This includes, of course, the god which ostensibly supported the hijackers and promised to reward them handsomely for mass murder when they arrived in paradise.
A critical, skeptical, analytical way of thinking, particularly about religion, is known historically by the term "freethought." Many people are barely aware that such a descriptor exists, and Jacoby's aim is to fill that gap in our knowledge by tracing the development of American freethought from its revolutionary roots, through its "golden age" (1875-1914), to the fractious and politically explosive church-state issues we face today. The reader will quickly discern that the author is not a neutral reporter, but her scholarship and intellectual integrity are more than sufficient to prevent the book from lapsing into a tiresome pro-freethinker polemic.
The narrative unfolds more or less chronologically, emphasizing key social themes as well as significant individual players. Among the themes are historical links between freethought and feminism; the secularist component of the antislavery movement; the collective demonization of communists, atheists and Darwinists; and the 19th-century origins of what are now known as culture wars. Major characters include Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll and Walt Whitman. Ingersoll, a famous and widely respected writer and lecturer in his day, was one of very few Americans able to make a successful full-time career out of freethought advocacy.
Among the book's most interesting subtopics is Jacoby's analysis of the religious views held by Abraham Lincoln. I should say interesting but maddening, because Lincoln proves fully as hard to pin down on matters of faith as was that other beloved icon, Albert Einstein. In devoting a whole chapter to the subject, the author argues convincingly that Lincoln's early friends and law partners were exposed to his skeptical side, while later political associates and acquaintances saw a non-sectarian but nevertheless religious man. In the end, Jacoby is forced to conclude that whether Lincoln really was or wasn't devout is "... a question that has never been answered."
As an absorbing, expertly-written history of an important subtrend in American culture, Jacoby's book fully deserves the enthusiastic praise it has received. The minor drawbacks associated with it stem inevitably from the fact that the author is herself dedicated to freethought. Thus she acts as both chronicler and defender, which can lead to occasional difficulties. For example, in defining "freethinker" Jacoby casts the widest net that dictionaries will allow, thereby including deists, i.e. people who believe in a remote, non-interfering god. She then maintains that Jefferson, Madison, and to some extent Washington, Adams and Franklin belong in the deist camp. This enables her to categorize a significant core contingent of the founding fathers as freethinkers, and to offer that conclusion as evidence against the widely-held impression that America was established as a "Christian nation."
The problem, though, is that arguments over the beliefs of historical figures tend to degenerate into contests of what is wryly termed "quote mining." Since the founding fathers' speeches, writings and personal correspondence have been extensively published, and since casual expressions which are overtly theistic or Bible-based were extremely common in 18th-century discourse, the pulpits of America are at this moment fairly vibrating with newly excavated quotations which seem to contradict attempts at portraying the fathers (with the possible exception of Jefferson) as exclusive devotees of a remote, detached, impersonal god. I think Jacoby could have made her case firmer overall by sticking closer to the strongest and most irrefutable evidence for a secularly-conceived America -- our pointedly godless constitution.
'Freethinkers' is an excellent choice for any reader genuinely curious about the largely unheralded role of secular thought and action in U.S. History.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
The religious right in the US has over the last few decades strongly promoted the notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation in keeping with the Christianity of the founding fathers. Secondly, there is the view that secularists are moral relativists, or worse, and have been intent on undermining the moral structure of society. This book demolishes those contentions by first examining the words of and the deliberations surrounding the Constitution and the intellectual orientation of the founding fathers, and secondly by taking an historical look at the involvement of freethinkers, or secularists, in all manner of important social issues. The book also devotes considerable space to examining the aggressiveness of religious fundamentalists in their attempts to impose their religious standards on the larger society, ignoring or disputing the secular foundation of our founding.
The founding fathers were men of the Enlightenment given to seeking rational explanations for natural phenomena. Many were inclined to Deism or pantheism, neither of which recognizes the moral God of Christians. They explicitly kept any reference to God out of the Constitution and disallowed governmental and religious interaction. They were only too aware that state support of religions had often led to warfare or to vengeance against those of unacceptable beliefs. The author points out that calls today to put God back into the Constitution conveniently ignore the fact that the Constitution has always been a secular document. Ironically, it was the evangelicals of the Colonial period who strongly supported Jefferson and Madison in keeping religion as strictly a private venture.
It is a conceit of religious adherents that religion usually leads the way in combating morally reprehensible social situations. But the author shows that religious bureaucracies are often very conservative, accepting the status quo regardless of deleterious impacts. In two prominent social issues of the 19th century, slavery and the secondary social and political status for women, mainstream religions were slow to react, if not opposed to change. However, there was considerable secular response. Such freethinkers as Ernestine Rose, Lucretia Mott, and Robert Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic, were widely listened to while on speaking tours. But their significant contributions to the abolitionist and suffragist movements are conveniently forgotten in "acceptable" history. In another distortion of history, in a chapter on Lincoln the author shows that the religious community attempts to shore up their claims of morality by maintaining that Lincoln was a man of God, ignoring his lifelong secular disposition. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was another opportunity for religions to take the lead - they did not, other than the black churches.
The author concludes that the era of well-known freethinkers essentially ended after WWI. One would be hard-pressed to point out a freethinker in the 20th century who has had the impact of a Robert Ingersoll or the notoriety of a Thomas Paine. Technology is partly to blame. The lecture circuit was replaced by first radio and then television networks with the need for advertisers to produce non-controversial programming, essentially leaving secularists with no platform.
The concept of freethinking is vaguely drawn by the author. At times only atheists or agnostics are included, but more generally it seems that social and political agitators are included. She notes that freethinkers are leery of political "isms." Regardless of exact definition, freethinking has always come with a high price in America, despite legal protections for freedom of expression. Numerous freethinkers have either been jailed or killed due to violating arbitrary standards of obscenity, disagreeing with government war-time policies, participating in a labor action, or advocating for civil rights. The religious community, certainly the most conservative, invariably attempt to connect the nonreligious with atheism, communism, or depravity - and vice versa, which, of course, justifies violent and borderline legal actions against them. In addition, social reformers often try to deny that secularists are part of their movements in attempts to gain wider acceptance. It is sad to see that women suffragists wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton out their history for publishing the Woman's Bible. Most freethinkers are leftists, but not all. However, they, outside of their usually non-articulated irreligion, are usually not engaged in actions that invite suppression.
In addition to slavery and women's rights, the author looks at the obscenity movement from the mid-1870s, the evolution/creation controversy of both the 19th and 20th centuries, birth control and abortion, and school prayer among others. Time and again those in support of freedom of expression and the separation of religion from the state are demonized for their Godlessness, quickly followed by attempts to link them with atheism, radicalism, and immorality. Of particular note is the rise of the Catholic Church in taking the lead in issues of obscenity, birth control, communism, and prayer in school. From once being demonized by Protestants, Catholics are now key members of the religious right.
Possibly because the author is ambivalent in regarding political radicals as freethinkers, she ignores the grass-roots efforts of working men and farmers to confront who they saw as their oppressors in the late 19th century, which attracted numerous freethinkers and dissidents. It's difficult to comprehend a book on free thought of that era that takes no notice of the Knights of Labor, the AFL, the IWW, the Farmers' Alliance, and the Populist Party.
Several times in the past forces of reason have thought that religious fundamentalism was in its last throes, only to see those forces return with a vengeance. The aftermath of the Scopes trial is an example. We are most certainly now in such an era, which undoubtedly prompts this book. It is disheartening, even frightening, to see members of the Supreme Court advancing ideas that God is an essential part of our Constitution or to see faith-based organizations conducting social policy. The forces arrayed against free thought and democratic actions may be as great as at any time in our nation's history. It will take many Ingersoll's to combat modern propaganda and forces of reaction and domination - if those individuals can be found.
This book is a very good and sobering overview of American history from a perspective that is usually ignored or rewritten. It is a story of immense importance for our future.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2004
This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know how the First Amendment protections of and from religion came about and have been interpreted and enforced (or not enforced) over the course of our history.
Jacoby does an excellent job of documenting and explaining the development not just of the secular point of view, but of the religious opinions freethinkers were up against in their times, and what the stakes were (and are) at each point.
Jacoby does a good job of debunking the religious right's assertions that it was religion that inspired the abolition and civil rights movements, when in fact both were made up evenly of religious and non-religious people. She also documents the rifts that religious and non-religious members of the women's rights movement experienced that set the movement back, and documents how the women's rights movement not only increased women's participation in society, but also weakened religion's hold on women, and how this was and is essential in winning (and maintaining) women's key rights.
Jacoby also delves into the religious (or not, depending on your take of her analysis) views of American political heroes Jefferson, Madison, Paine, John F. Kennedy, and Lincoln. It's important to describe that some of our most famous leaders and founders were, at best, ambivalent about religion. Jefferson's and Madison's views are especially important as writers of our DOI and Constitution. Their private writings indicate that they did indeed desire a "wall" between church and state, and lobbied in support of it.
Jacoby's last great analysis is of how throughout American history, anyone expressing unorthodox religious or political beliefs was denounced in pulpits all over the country as a god-hater, and therefore an America-hater. Whether you believed government should not support religious schools, slaves should be set free, women should be allowed to vote, workers should be allowed to unionize, industries should be regulated, evolution should be taught to children, or that black people should be able to share public facilities with whites, there were always a majority of religious figures ready and willing to accuse you of destroying the country and its morals, and individuals usually had to dissent from their own congregations to support equality, free speech, scientific knowledge and social justice.
Overall, my only criticism is that Jacoby set herself such a task that she had to only scrape the tip of the iceberg for each of her analyses. Fortunately, she includes a bibliography for advanced study. This book is a breath of fresh air in a climate that has been oversaturated with books either overstating religion's role in good movements or completing forgetting religion's role in keeping people poor, ignorant, and oppressed. I highly recommend it.