In Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby uses the term “freethought” to denote a broad range of rationalist beliefs, including dogmatic atheism, moderate humanism, indecisive agnosticism, and even deism—the notion of an aloof deity that does not directly intervene in human affairs. In contrast to the postmodernists, Jacoby unapologetically praises the eighteenth century Enlightenment, the liberal and skeptical intellectual movement that transformed Western civilization. Logically and historically, the concept of freethought is almost inseparable from that of secularism, which Jacoby defines as a conception of the public sphere “based on human reason and human rights, rather than divine authority.” In addition to the goal of increasing worldly happiness, the secularist agenda has usually included a strong commitment to a wall of separation between religion and government.
Jacoby advocates restoration of the “noble” term freethinker. Throughout American history, she believes, freethinking secularists have engaged in courageous struggles against the forces of religious intolerance and ignorance. She warns that principles of secularism are currently under assault. Offended by President George W. Bush's rhetoric of religious piety, she is particularly alarmed by his support for faith-based initiatives which encourage the use of public funds in programs operated by religious groups. In addition, she is distressed that many public schools avoid teaching biological evolution and other topics offensive to conservative Christians, whom she frequently calls the “religiously correct.”
Jacoby has done an admirable amount of research for portions of the book. Her scholarship is particularly impressive when she discusses the individual thinkers whom she admires, such as Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Ingersoll. Jacoby's research and reading in the area of the legal issues of the First Amendment, however, is rather limited. When dealing with this area, her text and bibliography make no references to some important and interesting sources. For example, she does not mention any of the scholarly works of Leonard Levy, including his historical studies of blasphemy and separation of church and state. In several places she might have strengthened her book by utilizing information that is readily available in the reference book Religious Freedom (2001), edited by John Noonan, Jr., and Edward Gaffney, Jr.
According to Jacoby's perspective, the United States was established on the bedrock of secularist principles. She observes that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for holding any office or public trust, provides a secular alternative to religious oaths, and asserts that political authority is derived from “we the people” without acknowledging the will of a deity (as commonly found in state constitutions and other public documents of the period). Jacoby uses this information to refute claims that the United States was established as a Christian nation. She might have also mentioned the Senate's approval of the Treaty with Tripoli of 1797, which declared that the United States was “not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
The historical evidence, however, is more complex than Jacoby's description. She ignores alternative evidence and minimizes the extent to which many of the founders of the American system of government believed that religion was important as a means of promoting social stability. In 1789, for example, the same Congress that approved the First Amendment adopted the Northwest Ordinance, which acknowledged the importance of promoting religion. This Congress also authorized the appointment of paid chaplains and passed a joint resolution requesting the president to recommend a day of thanksgiving and prayer to acknowledge “the many signal favors of Almighty God.” There is no evidence that many senators or representatives thought that these religious endorsements violated the First Amendment. Three of the first four presidents—George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison—issued religious proclamations without any apparent hesitation.
Although Thomas Jefferson, when president, refused to issue such proclamations, he was perfectly willing in the Declaration of Independence to acknowledge a creator of humans—rhetoric difficult to interpret from a strictly secular perspective. When he wrote in a letter of 1802 that the purpose of the First Amendment was to build “a wall of separation between Church and State,” he was expressing a personal opinion that was not commonly expressed. Throughout the nineteenth century, if there was a wall of separation, it was extremely low. For instance, Congress frequently authorized churches to use public funds in their work to educate and assimilate American Indians. In a Supreme Court decision of 1892, Justice...
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