Books of the Times
'Freethinkers'

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Susan Jacoby
Freethinkers:
A History of
American Secularism

In America's Long Culture War,
Under God or Under Citizens?
by Michael Kazin

March 31, 2004

Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries," James Madison argued in 1784. "A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate" liberty, "needs them not." This future drafter of the Constitution wrote with some urgency. Patrick Henry was pushing a bill in the Virginia legislature that would dip into tax revenues to employ ministers from a variety of churches. The long struggle to determine the place of religion in American politics had begun.

Madison won this particular contest, but, Susan Jacoby regrets in her new book that subsequent freethinkers have fared poorly in the culture wars that have roiled society since then. In the 19th century and the opening decades of the 20th zealous Protestants secured laws to ban the sale of alcohol, erotic literature and diaphragms, and the teaching of Darwinian theory in public schools. Roman Catholic censors took the offensive during the 1930's with strictures against sex and four-letter words on screen that Hollywood wove into its official Production Code.

For a few decades after, secularists fought back successfully, aided by a strong American Civil Liberties Union and a liberal Supreme Court. But a new Christian right took the offensive in the 1970's and has never let up in a campaign to install its morality in law and custom. Ms. Jacoby concludes her book with a shudder as she describes Justice Antonin Scalia's belief that the American state derives its legitimacy not from the citizenry but from God.

Still, one aspect of America's history fills her with hope. Ardent and insightful, Ms. Jacoby seeks to rescue a proud tradition from the indifference of posterity. Her title was shrewdly chosen. "Freethinker" is what rebels against spiritual authority once called themselves, and it ennobles the breed with, if she'll excuse the term, the holiest adjective in the lexicon of American politics. Her pantheon of skeptics includes names like Jefferson, Paine, Darrow and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of "The Woman's Bible" that ridiculed the sexism of the apostles. And she rediscovers such figures as Robert Ingersoll, the Gilded Age orator who drew huge audiences with calls for "a religion of humanity" that would venerate only "inquiry, investigation and thought."

Ms. Jacoby is no polemicist. She appreciates the pull of religion -- as community and creed -- while criticizing her own side for taking refuge in rational disdain. Beliefs, she knows, cannot promote themselves: "Values are handed down more easily and thoroughly by permanent institutions than by marginalized radicals," she writes. To change minds, "secular humanists must reclaim passion and emotion from the religiously correct."

But as that last phrase suggests, Ms. Jacoby's book is often more persuasive as a manifesto than as history. Not surprisingly, she echoes some of the rickety prejudices of her secular heroes and heroines. She tends to regard the devout as thoroughly conservative in their politics and views the Bible Belt as a benighted region needing external deliverance.

American believers have never formed a reactionary bloc. Both John Brown and the Christian socialist Edward Bellamy -- author of the best-selling utopian novel, "Looking Backward" -- yoked the language of the prophets to radical causes. The Populists, who formed the largest third party in United States history, were led by pious egalitarians like Ignatius Donnelly, who preached that "Jesus was only possible in a barefoot world, and he was crucified by the few who wore shoes."

Ms. Jacoby plays down the spiritual motivations of civil rights activists in the 1960's, pointing out that atheists and Unitarians also marched and died for the cause. But for most black Southerners, their freedom movement was a great revival, as David Chappell explains in his compelling new book, "A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow." "Don't talk to me about atheism," Fannie Lou Hamer, field-hand-turned-activist told Northern students in 1964. "If God wants to start a movement, then hurray for God."

It is also disappointing that Ms. Jacoby defends a popular and controversial 1948 book, "American Freedom and Catholic Power," by Paul Blanshard, a former Protestant minister, which portrayed the the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy of American freedom because it opposed birth control and demanded that parochial schools receive a share of public funds.

Blanshard, she claims, was blaming just the institution, not the laity. But parochial schools were originally established to provide an alternative to public ones where students routinely learned only the virtues of the Reformation and recited from the King James Version of the Bible, commissioned by a Protestant monarch. And Ms. Jacoby neglects the anger that Blanshard provoked with his description of nuns as relics of "an age when women allegedly enjoyed subjection and reveled in self-abasement." Freethinkers can be intolerant, too.

One lesson that secularists might draw from Ms. Jacoby's challenging book is to pick battles they can win. The task of walling off state from church, synagogue or mosque has always been distinct from and far less marginal than the attempt to persuade Americans that religion is just a stew of unprovable myths. Michael Newdow wins praise for arguing that the Supreme Court should delete "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. But his atheism appeals to a far smaller audience.

On the other hand, freethinkers in the United States are unlikely to talk many people into abandoning their belief in an afterlife and their reverence for Scripture. In 1892 Ingersoll gave a lovely eulogy for his friend Walt Whitman, whom, he said, "accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none." But this is a difficult stance to take, and few Americans have ever taken it.

Religious diversity untrammeled by government is a hard-won and signal achievement of our society, thanks to the efforts of James Madison and other enlightened minds. It would be unreasonable to suppose that a rigorous humanism could replace this kind of freedom, which remains rare in a world of warring faiths.

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Michael Kazin is writing a biography of William Jennings Bryan.
He teaches history at Georgetown University.

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