Finally, there is a book for us. By “us,” of course, I mean all those who abhor superstition, despise tradition, buck authority, and choose a life of logic, reason, and doubt over faith and spirituality. Yes, all four of you. And we must count among us author Susan Jacoby, for she has contributed a work of great daring, suggesting as she does that history has unfairly marginalized the freethinking set. Certainly, “freethinker” is itself a vague term, often equated with atheism and agnosticism, but just as commonly linked to non-traditional modes of thought. In Jacoby’s mind, one can be a freethinker with religious beliefs, but at the very least one must adhere to a position of strict church/state separation. At bottom, then, freethinkers challenge prevailing notions and hold power accountable, although few might see how that differs in any way from a mere rebel. Jacoby is quite adamant about identifying the genuine freethinker, as it is the only way to prove that indeed, such a person has had enormous impact on the course of American history.
I found myself in almost constant agreement with Ms. Jacoby’s point of view, but it hit me just as often that most Americans would find this book shocking, if not dangerous. I’m sure they would assume that Jacoby is either a Communist or a lesbian — perhaps both — and almost certainly engages in the ritualistic sacrifice of cooing Christian infants. Among Jacoby’s revelations:
- As further evidence of the Founders’ intent to keep church and state separate, she cites Article VI of the Constitution (“…but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”), and takes it one step further, pointing out wording that I previously did not consider. In that same Article, it states (regarding members of the government): “(they)…shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this constitution.” Why is this important? An oath, as we know, is usually administered on the Bible, while an affirmation is entirely secular in nature. If the Founders were so intent on creating a religious, or even Christian nation, why would they account for those who choose not to adhere to a sacred (and god-based) oath? Strict constructionists never seem to mention that little nugget.
- It is true that many state constitutions freely mixed religion and government in the pre-Constitution days, but it is telling that of all the templates on which to base a federal Constitution (concerning the role of religion), the Founders chose the Virginia model, the very state where the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed. And yes, dear ones, Thomas Jefferson was a member of that generation and was quite clear about his desire to keep civil matters divorced from, and wholly uninfluenced by, religion. Not a sect, or a particular church, but religion as a whole. Read the First Amendment again and you will see that it forbids “an establishment of religion” — not a religion or a type, but the entire thing.
- Friend of the freethinkers James Madison proposed that the Bill of Rights prohibit states “from passing any law interfering with freedom of conscience.” It failed to pass not because the Founders wanted God in the statehouse, but rather as a check on federal power. Freedom of conscience? Who among you could interpret that as a call to arms for a Christian nation? Except you, Mr. Bush.
- It bears repeating (again and again and again, I’m afraid) that God is not mentioned once in the body of the Constitution. Sorry folks, he’s nowhere to be found. Not God, nor Providence, nor the Divine Spirit, nor the Holy Father. And lest you yokels forget, the Preamble tells us the source of our rights and liberties — “WE THE PEOPLE.” And don’t bring up the God shit in the Declaration of Independence. It’s beautiful poetry, but it is in no way legally binding. Once again, when it came to matters of law, God is conspicuously absent.
- Many of the Founders were godly men, but they were much more heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment. You know: reason, logic, science, and skepticism. Everything antithetical to religious bullshit.
- Christian nation? Fuck off. What about a 1790 letter from George Washington to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island where he states: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship.” He assures the “Stock of Abraham” that they will “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Sounds like freedom of conscience to me.
And these are just a few of the examples from the early days of the Republic, proving conclusively that matters of faith were private and not to be punished or sanctioned by a legal body. Jacoby then moves to matters of historical distortion and revisionism, demonstrating how cruelly we have treated such heroes as Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Robert Ingersoll, and William Lloyd Garrison. She provides great detail and sharp evidence that these figures have been maligned or even forgotten because of their iconoclastic positions regarding religion. Rose, for example, was, in her own day, considered a tremendous orator and passionate advocate for women’s rights. Even better, she was an outspoken atheist. Or take Garrison, recently revived by a long overdue biography, was considered a “minor figure” in the anti-slavery movement, largely because he challenged America’s churches to account for their partnership with that peculiar institution. Jacoby uses many of these unjustly forgotten Americans to show that the cause of abolition was not the “spiritual crusade” that has been recorded in history books. Many important figures were spiritual people, but just as many refused to join a church and even openly declared their freethinking ways. Secular humanism — the idea that mankind is responsible for itself in this life and this life alone — motivated thousands of brave men and women to take unpopular stands and risk their lives in open defiance of the law. One did not need Jesus to pound the pavement.
Jacoby also discusses the impact of Darwinism on the United States and how it changed many in the freethinker’s movement. She correctly identifies the arrogance of many secularists who assumed that with the Scopes Trial in 1925, fundamentalism was on the run and near collapse. Jacoby faults many freethinkers for not remaining involved in the cause of reason and ceding too much ground to backwater fire-and-brimstone sorts who were always better organized than people assumed. And there are more biographical sketches of the major figures of the past (including one of a truly heroic individual, Roger Nash Baldwin, founder of the ACLU). We are witness to the never-ending battles over school prayer, abortion, the legacy and intent of the Founders, the sinister coupling of fundamentalism and anti-communism, the transformation of religion as a result of radio and then television, and so forth. Jacoby is a pleasant guide, for while she refuses to hide her own ideas and biases, she provides a wealth of detail that makes her (and our) case irrefutable.
Contrary to the lies we’ve been fed by conservatives and religious zealots, America has a blissfully strong history of free thought. From Clarence Darrow to W.E.B. DuBois (who, in my opinion, is a more forceful intellect than MLK, yet is often forgotten because of his skepticism and embrace of communism), Madalyn Murray O’Hair to Walt Whitman [Ed Note: Don’t forget our man Mencken], America has been anything but a Christian nation, often turning away from religious principles and figures to challenge the old order. As many in Jacoby’s book stated on several occasions, “belief” never got us anywhere. Belief is reactionary — it seeks to preserve through a certainty that cannot be reconciled with the messy confusion of life. Only doubt — the ability of an individual to admit that there is always a need for further inquiry and exploration — has helped to achieve the worthwhile and the lasting. Whereas belief closes, limits, narrows, and preserves (i.e. the current travesty involving stem cell research and the potential cure for a myriad of diseases being held hostage by our current Idiot in Chief and his antiquated, medieval and ultimately murderous “beliefs”), doubt shatters the illusions of an imperfect world and insists, defiantly, that we simply must not reach the end of our journey. At bottom, Freethinkers believe in the limitless possibilities of the human mind, the only true sanctuary we will ever know.
But I’ll end the review with a quote from Justice Robert H. Jackson who, while often conservative in his leanings, penned what might be the greatest words ever uttered by an American. It is worth noting that his words came as a result of the landmark case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, where the Court struck down a state’s Pledge of Allegiance requirement. Handed down in 1943 (during the big World Fucking War, for all those who care), Jackson wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Tattoo it on your chest, carve it one the wall, or slap it on a T-shirt. But never, ever forget it. Consider it the Freethinker’s credo.