Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby
Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
reviewed by Kenneth B. McIntyre
If, as the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once said, the sin of the academic is always taking too long to make a point, the sin of the journalist is making a point without historical reflection or understanding. In her widely praised book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, a former journalist at The Washington Post and currently a freelance writer, declares that her intention is “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.”
Freethinkers has received high praise in the national press and from secular intellectuals like Peter Gay and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Christopher Hitchens lauded it for showing that “secularism, agnosticism, and atheism are as American as cherry pie,” and Arthur Miller called it “fresh air for the lungs of those who defend the separation of church and state.” Philip Roth suggested that every college freshman should be required to read the book as a primer on American secularism.
The book is, in fact, a particularly egregious example of what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig interpretation of history: It reduces the significance of past events to their relevance to present concerns. The Whig historian constructs a Manichean story in which the individuals of the past are understood merely in terms of their supposed contribution or opposition to contemporary political and social attitudes.
Jacoby’s version of secular Whiggism can be summarized as follows. The history of liberty is the history of the triumph of secular reason over the reactionary forces of irrational religion. At some point in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and in a manner similar to Athena’s emergence fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, certain human beings escaped the cave of orthodox religion and discovered Reason.
These enlightened human beings were mostly French, but some especially bright Americans, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, imbibed deeply from this well of knowledge and created a secular government in the United States based solely upon human reason. Since this pristine creation, however, the malign forces of reactionary religion have attempted to stifle the education of the general public.
In this story there have been heroes like Tom Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Ingersoll. And there have been villains like Timothy Dwight, Anthony Comstock, Billy Graham, the Catholic hierarchy, and the entire population of the Southern states.
The moral of Jacoby’s story is clear: The American past and the American present form a battleground on which the dark forces of religion attempt to tyrannize the population while besieged progressive secularists defend true liberty, and the real meaning of the Constitution and especially the First Amendment, at every turn.
The historical difficulties with Jacoby’s book are legion, but I will focus briefly on three of them. First, her conception of the European Enlightenment as essentially anti-clerical, irreligious, rationalistic, and philosophically materialistic is a generalization from the French experience and inappropriate to the other European Enlightenments, as, for example, the Scottish, German, and American versions.
Kant, the most profound philosopher associated with the period, attempted to provide a philosophical foundation for his own Pietism and, in so doing, offered a compelling critique of the metaphysical claims of natural science. Hume, the great skeptic, did not limit his skepticism to religion, but was also quite dubious about the place of reason in human activity.
Jacoby’s representative figures, Voltaire and Tom Paine, no more comprehensively represent the extra-ordinary complexity of the historical Enlightenment than do individuals like John Witherspoon, who was a friend of David Hume, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the president of the College of New Jersey (which would become Princeton University), and a devoutly orthodox Presbyterian preacher; or the Anglican Bishop Berkeley, who expounded a philosophy that explicitly rejected materialism and posited an immediate and omnipresent God as the cause of all experience.
Second, and more significant in terms of Jacoby’s project, is her claim that the Constitution and the establishment clause of the First Amendment were intended to create a purely secular government neutral on or indifferent to religion.
To defend this notion, she relies almost solely on quotes from Jefferson and Madison, both of whom were religiously eccentric among the founders. The reasons for relying on them are clearly polemical, not historical. She wants to undermine “the image of the founders as devoutly religious men” by arguing that “rationalism and humanism permeated the character and thought of the iconic revolutionary figures.”
However, her “icons” hardly prove her point. Jefferson had little to do with either the writing and ratification of the Constitution or with the framing and passage of the Bill of Rights, so his example is not particularly relevant. Madison was intimately involved in the creation of both, but both were revised in ways that directly contradicted many of his own concerns, especially his desire to use Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom as “the template for secularist provisions of the federal Constitution,” as Jacoby writes. Indeed, she admits that Madison failed to persuade Congress to adopt his version of the First Amendment.
The Constitution itself is largely a procedural document that created a set of rules authorizing certain activities and prohibiting others to the national government. Although, as Jacoby correctly notes, it does not mention God and prohibits religious test oaths, many at the time of its writing understood the requirement that public officials take an oath to support the Constitution to make a religious test unnecessary, because oath-taking was understood as being a type of nonsectarian religious test itself.
Further, the First Amendment prohibiting the establishment of a religion and protecting the free exercise of religion was not, in fact, intended to secularize the national government, but instead to reject sectarianism. The founders understood the term “establishment” in a specific way: A church established by a government could command assent to its doctrinal statements, receive tax moneys to support it, and require attendance at its services.
The founders prohibited the national government only from establishing such a state church, not from supporting religion in nonsectarian ways. Soon after passing the amendment, for example, Congress passed a resolution proposing a national day of “public prayer and thanksgiving,” on which President Washington soon acted. It also provided land for churches and mentioned the necessity of religious education in the Northwest Ordinance.
Thus, contrary to Jacoby’s account, the people who actually voted to ratify the establishment clause saw no incompatibility between it and governmental support of religion.
Jacoby’s selective use of history in her examination of the founding fathers is a rather standard exercise among secular writers of history, but throughout the book she also uses history selectively to blame orthodox religion for slavery, the subjugation of women, censorship, segregation, and McCarthyism. This is the third historical difficulty with Freethinkers.
Her aggressive antagonism toward religion can be seen most starkly in her treatment of Norman Vincent Peale, Fulton Sheen, and Billy Graham. These three religious leaders, she asserts, debased the former secular purity of American public discourse by surreptitiously importing an ecumenical form of Christian values and ideals into the public forum.
They accomplished this by ingeniously combining Christian doctrine, American exceptionalism, and the worship of worldly success. Sheen, for example, “conferred a religious imprimatur on what was essentially a social agenda, blazing a trail for Protestant evangelicals, like Billy Graham . . . as well as for the more recent electronic spokesmen of the Christian far right.”
Peale, Sheen, and Graham are generally considered to be the most ecumenical and non-controversial orthodox religious leaders of the post-war years. The suggestion that the anodyne optimism of Peale or Sheen and Graham’s spiritual revivalism represented a plot to inject religion into public life is literally ridiculous.
In fact, many Christians believe that these three men were more successful at Americanizing Christianity than at Christianizing America. Whether or not that is true, Jacoby’s indictment of such socially unthreatening teachers as Peale, Sheen, and Graham suggests that she believes that the expression of any form of orthodox religious belief is harmful to public discourse.
Which is not surprising because, as befits the writer of an anti-Christian polemic, the author defines religious belief primarily in terms of its irrationality, ignoring the parochialism of her own instrumentalist conception of reason, manifested primarily in her repeated appeals to science. (Instrumentalism is the idea that reason is merely a tool to be used to further human purposes, not a faculty by which truth may be found.)
For example, she extols the scientific method because “it discourages the leaps of faith in the unverifiable that are the essence of any religion.” The notion that a proposition is true only if empirically verifiable cannot, of course, be empirically verified, but is instead an argument of a logically different order. It is as parochial—as irrational, in her terms—as the Christian’s religious commitments.
However, it is clear that Jacoby does not object to faith in general, but only to religious faith. In the paragraph following her description of the irrationality of religion, she commends “the profound American faith in progress” because such faith made it easier for Americans to accept evolution.
She insists that the acceptance of evolution, which has only an extremely tenuous connection with public policy, ought to be the sine qua non for entry into public discourse. It demonstrates both her overt hostility to fundamentalist Christians and her own dogmatic credulity about modern natural science.
Jacoby believes that one’s religion is, or ought to be, a matter of one’s private tastes, like a preference for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate ice cream—if it is a taste she thinks irrational, at least it affects no one else.
She argues that “the problem, of course, is not religion, of whatever brand . . . but religion melded with political ideology and political power.” Thus, according to the logic of her argument, anyone seeking to influence public policy on the basis of such irrational personal prejudices or brand preferences ought to be ignored, and even rejected or silenced.
What Jacoby neglects is that Christians do not understand their religion as a purely subjective state of mind, but as objectively reasonable and ultimately true. The radical disjunction between reason and faith which Jacoby posits has been firmly rejected by most Christians.
More to the point, for Christians, the truth of Christianity is neither merely an academic matter nor a matter of purely private speculation, but instead defines their conception of the character of history, aesthetics, morality, and politics. It is a matter that affects their life in the public square.
Christianity is a way of being and acting in the world, not a set of private conclusions. Augustine and Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, Calvin and Knox, Chesterton and Lewis, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Paul II would have certainly rejected both the notion that they were benighted mystifiers whose appeal was limited to the irrational and emotional side of their human interlocutors and the idea that their Christianity was or ought to have been irrelevant to their public lives.
Jacoby’s book, and the enthusiastic praise it has received from secular figures of public prominence and influence, does suggest that something rather profound is taking place within the American polity. Philosophers use the term incommensurability when speaking of two ideas informed by presuppositions so different that they cannot be compared in a significant way.
The dogmatic faith of secularists like Jacoby in the salvific character of natural science and disembodied reason makes meaningful communication on matters of public concern between them and Christians quite difficult, because the secularists not only reject the validity of arguments based upon revelation but also reject any non-instrumentalist accounts of rationality.
For example, Jacoby claims that religious beliefs are inherently “subjective,” and since “one religious viewpoint cannot serve all in a democratic society,” arguments based upon these irrational beliefs cannot be used in political discourse. She claims that a “theological position . . . should not be permitted to masquerade as a general ethical principle.”
However, the public arguments of, for example, the Catholic bishops are never purely theological in Jacoby’s sense of the term. Instead, the Catholic Church’s official statements on issues like abortion, homosexuality, marriage, contraception, and the death penalty are addressed not just to Catholics but to the public at large, and are grounded in an appeal to the natural law and the common reason of humanity about the nature and purposes of human life.
But since this appeal to the natural law is not susceptible to external empirical verification and does not rest on a materialist scientific foundation, those who define reason in instrumental terms reject it. Thus, even thinkers like Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, who have argued forcefully for a nonsectarian, natural-law approach to Christian engagement in the public sphere, are considered by secularists to be irrationalists.
Religion, for secularists like Jacoby, has no right to a hearing or a place in the public square. If her book is not anti-religious bigotry, it would be difficult to find anything that is.
There is still an interesting book to be written about the intellectual history of American secularism, but this isn’t it. But if readers are wondering if aggressive secularists desire to limit or eliminate the contribution of Christians to public life, reading Freethinkers will leave them most enlightened.
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