279 of 292 people found the following review helpful
A really important expose of our freethinking history,
By A Customer
This review is from: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Hardcover)
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.