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An invaluable corrective, despite its faults and omissions,
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This review is from: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Hardcover)
"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.