The Secular Experiment

16 December 2004

What’s freethought got to do with it?

Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan Books, 2004)

Reviewed by Brendan Boyle

“John Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending,” teased the Bush-camp after the first presidential debate. Kerry cried foul, but he should have known better. He wasn’t the first Catholic presidential candidate obliged to defend his independence from would-be interlopers. In 1960, not long before Election Day, John F. Kennedy had to make it clear that he had no intention of outsourcing important decisions to the Boston Archdiocese, much less to the Vatican. Kennedy pledged his allegiance to “an America … where the separation of church and state is absolute … where no Catholic prelate would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote … and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him and the people who might elect him.”

Catholics aren’t the only ones whose loyalty has been called into question. American Jews have been the most frequent targets of this slander. A Jewish president, presumably, wouldn’t take orders from the Vatican (or Paris). But he just might make Israel the centerpiece of American foreign policy. This hysterical accusation has an ancient, but not noble, pedigree. Susan Jacoby, in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, quotes one eighteenth-century journalist who publicly worries that “Should the president be a Jew, our posterity might be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.” In 1787, no Jew was just about to win the presidency. Protestants of varying stripes had a lock on that office. What occasioned this journalist’s consternation was the imminent adoption of a constitution that explicitly outlawed religious tests for office.Article 6, section 3 guaranteed that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It was the mere possibility that a Jew, a Catholic, or worse, an atheist might take office that proved so troubling.

Article 6 and its author Thomas Jefferson are the heroes of Jacoby’s temperamental book. Jacoby’s Jefferson is an avowed Enlightenment Francophile, a steely humanist wary of organized religion. She devotes much space to Jefferson’s pre-White House, freethinking days in the Virginia assembly. There he honed his secularist chops by defending the separation of church and state against Patrick Henry’s proposal to use public money to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Jefferson defeated this plan and then went on to author a sweeping declaration of his state’s commitment to religious freedom, the 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, a rough draft of what would become Article 6. This article, Jacoby argues, became a kind of “freethinkers” manifesto.

“Freethinker” isn’t a very fashionable term. The adjective-noun coupling gives it a faintly archaic redolence. Susan Jacoby would like her book to inject new life into this once-venerable but now out-of-favor designation. The first two-thirds of the book is a loving treatment of an assortment of so-called secular humanists. It’s a wildly mixed bag. Jefferson takes top billing, followed by Revolutionary insurrectionist Thomas Paine, firebrand abolitionist William Garrison, emancipator-cum-cipher Abraham Lincoln, Seneca Falls planners Susan Anthony andElizabeth Cady Stanton, and the “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll. Along the way, Walt WhitmanClarence Darrow, and Margaret Sanger make brief cameos.

The Great Agnostic

This roster is, with the notable exception of Lincoln, fairly by-the-numbers. Lincoln’s faith is a great source of pride for American evangelicals — and not without reason. The second inauguralpromises that should the Civil War continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk … it must be said that ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Jacoby huffs that this hardly makes Lincoln a believer, but she never comes to terms with just what kind of “freethinker” could use such haunting, Biblical language. She is much stronger after leaving Lincoln behind. She solidly demonstrates the secularist impetus behind many enlightened causes — emancipation, women’s suffrage, evolution, and, somewhat less convincingly, civil rights. In the case of the Jim Crow South, the moral stewardship provided by religious African Americans was so momentous that the contributions of Jacoby’s Northern secularists feel slim. She probably should have conceded this round to the theists and moved on. That way, she might have saved some energy for the book’s exhausted final third. By then, “freethought” has all but disappeared, replaced by series of ornery screeds against Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and other redoubts of irrationalism.

Jacoby’s special pleading for “freethought” never catches fire because it never becomes clear what this motley bunch has in common. They all owed a vague debt to French Enlightenment humanism and all had good, skeptical temperaments. They resented religious orthodoxy and, for the most part, practiced a sensible, sober, progressivist politics. But even the most incendiary of the lot — Paine and Garrison — knew the time and place for compromise. Few were committed atheists. Most subscribed to a restrained, laissez-faire sort of agnosticism. “Freethought,” it turns out, is a rather weak and rickety contraption, held together by a few silken threads. Hooking a three-hundred-page argument to this vehicle becomes, as the book lurches toward its close, an increasingly unwise choice. Without much to go on, these heroic secularists come off flat, sounding the same anti-orthodoxy note time and again.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan

To keep the book above water Jacoby resorts to some rather unseemly hectoring. Freethinkers have been “vilified” and “demonized,” harps Jacoby early on. And this is just the beginning. “It is past time,” shouts Jacoby, “to restore secularism, and its noble and essential contributions at every stage of the American experiment, to its proper place in our nation’s historical memory and vision of the future.” Her tone throughout is snide, hortatory, and aggrieved. The early writing of James Madison “should be as familiar to students of American history as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution”; the diaries of Unitarian minister William Bentley, “should have secured him a place in American cultural history”; “the religiously correct version of American history has never given proper credit to the central importance of the Enlightenment concept of natural rights.” And so on. This kind of bullying sits ill with the ostensible subject of the book. So too does the remarkable lack of documentation. A book about freethought doesn’t need a dozen footnotes per page, but it should have enough to allow readers to sift through the evidence and make up their own minds. That seems a reasonable — perhaps even an Enlightened — request.

Jacoby is embarrassed by the faintest whiff of religion in one of her freethinkers. Susan Anthony somberly mused that, “if it be true that we die like the flower, leaving behind only the fragrance … what a delusion has the race ever been in … what a dream is the life of man.” For this weakness of will, Jacoby bumps her down one notch in the secularist standings and elevates instead Ernestine Rose, Polish emigre and hardened atheist “who unflinchingly and unfailingly rejected the idea that it was possible to communicate with spirits of the dead.” This is the lowest point of the book. To read Jacoby, we might have thought Anthony was leading a séance, conjuring up spirits from the other side. But of course she is doing nothing of the sort. Her existential sounding — echoed by other freethinkers like Garrison, Lincoln, and Ingersoll — is not a failure of nerve but expressions of a deeply felt human need to see purpose in the world. Even the book’s hero, Thomas Jefferson knew this. He, after all, spent a good many nights of his presidency editing the Gospels into two neat volumes, “The Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” Jefferson’s Jesus is, to be sure, extremely hygienic. He works no miracles. He preaches benevolence more than redemption. But he does witness the fact that religion can inspire — and need not necessarily impede — social justice. Jacoby, who must have met some very mean-spirited believers in her life, never fesses up to this fact and the book suffers for it.

Brendan Boyle is a writer living in Chicago.