Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
by Susan Jacoby
Metropolitan Books. 417 pp. $27.50
Susan Jacoby completed Freethinkers well before the latest outbreak of hostilities in the culture wars, but even without entries in her index for “Gibson, Mel” and “nuptials, same-sex,” it is not hard to situate her in the debate. Her enemies are familiar. She bristles at the open religiosity of “the Reverend Bush,” who has done everything “short of erecting a cross atop the White House” to show his commitment to “pulverizing” the wall of separation between church and state. She decries the “messianic radicalism” and “disdain for secular government” of Justice Scalia, and she worries that “the apostles of religious correctness” have infused every public issue with “their theological values.” By Jacoby’s reckoning, these are dark days indeed for those who believe that our affairs should be governed “not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence.”
An author and journalist with several previous books to her name, Jacoby runs the New York branch of the Center for Inquiry, a group devoted (as its website proclaims) to “secularism, humanism, and skepticism in action.” As she sees it, the most urgent task facing today’s beleaguered secularists is to recover their lost past. Too few Americans, she laments, know about their freethinking forebears, the bold deists, agnostics, and preachers of godlessness who have scandalized the faithful since the days of George Washington. By rescuing these forgotten freethinkers from the oblivion—the “kooks’ corner,” the “historical memory hole”—to which they have been relegated by right-wingers and their cultural fellow-travelers, she hopes not only to win recognition for their “noble and essential contributions” but, more important, to revive their fighting creed.
A number of Jacoby’s anti-religious radicals are, in fact, the sort of colorful bit players often overlooked by standard histories. We meet Elihu Palmer, a crusading deist of the early republic, known for his aggressive impiety, like the Christmas-day speech of 1796 in which he derided the story of the Virgin Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit, noting that most men would gladly “pretend to be ghosts, if by such pretensions they could obtain similar favors.” Then there is Ernestine Rose, a Polish-Jewish émigrée and “ringleted, glove-handed exotic” (as one critic put it) who stirred up trouble in the 1840’s and 50’s with her lectures on atheism, abolition, and women’s rights. My own favorite is the cartoonist Watson Heston, a Missourian whose Bible Comically Illustrated (1892) gave a rudely malicious twist to the idea of taking Scripture literally.
Less obscure, if not exactly a household name, is Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic,” who serves as the hero and presiding spirit of Jacoby’s account. A Civil War veteran, star of the Republican party, and oratorical powerhouse, Ingersoll gave freethought a legitimacy and reach it had never before possessed. Touring the country in the 1880’s and 90’s, he spoke to packed houses for hours at a time, ridiculing the doctrines of the churchmen and offering, Jacoby writes, a “coherent secular humanist alternative” to their “authoritarian” views on family life, modern science, artistic freedom, and a range of other subjects. “We are looking for the time when the useful shall be the honorable,” declared Ingersoll, in high purple, “and when REASON, throned upon the world’s brain, shall be the King of Kings, and God of Gods.”
But does this catalogue of lesser-known dissenters add up to an entire suppressed history, a chapter of the American story blotted out, as Jacoby would have it, by the conspiratorial forces of “religious correctness”? Not really. Indeed, most of the characters in Jacoby’s diverse pageant of freethinkers are familiar, even famous. Is it news that figures like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, and Clarence Darrow considered orthodox religion a less than perfectly wholesome influence on American society, or that their provocative views often drew down on their heads the wrath of the faithful? Revisionist history usually delivers more surprises.
Jacoby’s true grievance, it seems, is not that the American tradition of freethought is unknown but that it did not last much beyond its turn-of-the-century “golden age.” By the 1920’s, she writes, the always diffuse movement no longer existed “as a distinct intellectual force in American life.” Its place was taken by various leftish causes that, though often at odds with the Church and the churches, “did not have the undermining of institutional religion as their chief goal.”
Jacoby mourns the demise of this earlier “uncompromising” brand of anti-religious militancy. But it is unclear why the fading of freethought should be considered so serious a blow for secularism itself or, for that matter, why throughout her book (and in its title) Jacoby uses the two terms as if they were interchangeable. After all, the turn of the American Left away from was soon followed by what can only be described as a series of secularist triumphs.
Between the deaths of Robert Ingersoll in 1899 and of Clarence Darrow almost 40 years later, Americans who wanted to do battle with Bible-thumpers and flat-earthers may have lost interest in periodicals like the Truth Seeker, the most influential organ of freethought, but (as Jacoby recounts) they began to join new organizations like the ACLU. And they started to win as never before, thanks in large part to an ever more accommodating judiciary. Censorship, birth control, school prayer, abortion—all the great 20th-century disputes chronicled by Jacoby in the final chapters of her book end with the forces of traditional religion in unmistakable retreat.
Why, then, Jacoby’s stress on the fate of freethought? One reason, no doubt, is personal affinity. Like her hero Ingersoll, Jacoby evinces a dogmatic, almost visceral hostility toward all things religious, even religiously informed moral argument. For her, it is not enough that Americans establish a proper constitutional boundary between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. The public square, she believes, is no place for expressions of “private faith,” and religion itself, in the clear-eyed tradition of freethought, is best seen as “the foundation of most other social evils.”
So intense is Jacoby’s animus toward all but the most unorthodox believers that it compromises whole parts of her account. It gives an almost comically defensive air to her discussion of abolitionism and the fight for civil rights, movements she admires but whose Christian inspiration she feels compelled to downplay or dismiss. And it leaves her strangely non-plussed in the face of a Catholic progressive like Monsignor John A. Ryan, an early 20th-century activist whose faith moved him both to push for ambitious social legislation and to resign from the board of the ACLU because of its support for birth control.
Jacoby is more at ease in dealing with religious conservatives, whom she eagerly consigns to the lower reaches of her secularist inferno. But here, too, there are complications that she is ill-equipped to consider. From her mocking account of Billy Graham’s “celebrated” revival meetings at Madison Square Garden in 1957, for instance, one would never know that the featured speakers included Martin Luther King, Jr., who was grateful to the Southern evangelist for his emphatic public stand against segregation. King later used the jackets of Graham’s books to smuggle the works of Gandhi to imprisoned freedom riders, perhaps as a jibe at their Southern jailers but certainly not (as Jacoby reports) because King knew “exactly what sort of religion was acceptable to the enemies of racial equality.”
If Jacoby’s fixation on the demise of freethought makes for tendentious analysis, however, it works nicely as a rhetorical strategy. It allows her to turn the tables on today’s religious Right. In Jacoby’s telling, it is America’s secularists, not its church-going believers, who have been silenced and pushed to the margins of national debate. The anti-religious radicals on whom she shines a spotlight suffered real hardships for their principles. Thomas Paine died a bitter, broken man, abandoned by the country whose independence he had championed. Ingersoll, after a brief stint as attorney general of Illinois and a failed bid for governor, had to give up his political ambitions. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) was expurgated and banned, Stanton’s heretical Woman’s Bible (1895) disavowed by the official body of the suffrage movement. Even the relatively discreet Jefferson, Jacoby speculates, was denied a national celebration of his birthday because of his “image as a religious heretic.”
A more fair-minded account of American secularism, one less intent on creating a sense of present-day crisis, would certainly include a few chapters on the injustices suffered by our most illustrious freethinkers. But it would also set out in scrupulous detail the claims of those who have resisted and—in our still overwhelmingly religious country—continue to resist secularist overreaching. It might also take note of the gradual acceptance, by even the most conservative denominations, of key secularist principles.
For Susan Jacoby, the problem with weaving such a tale is that it would have to conclude with the obvious fact of secularism’s abiding strength and (fiercely contested) ascendancy. As she plainly knows, celebrating past victories is no way for a culture warrior to rally her scattered troops.