FREETHINKERS by Susan Jacoby


A History of American Secularism
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A lively history of American antispiritualism, with a stellar cast.

“The first six presidents of the United States did not invoke the blessings of the deity as frequently in their entire public careers as President Bush does each month,” writes freelance journalist Jacoby (Half-Jew, 2000). Bless their innocent souls, those six presidents took the constitutional separation of church and state seriously, even as a couple of them—Jefferson and Madison—harbored deistic notions (God may not be dead, but he’s probably not well) that weighed against their invoking the divinity. Jacoby hails Thomas Paine as our exemplary “revolutionary secularist,” omitting God whenever he could as certain compatriots in the new US worried that unless the chief executive took an oath to some organized Protestant church, “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States,” as one speaker at the Massachusetts constitutional convention put it. Jacoby examines the opaque religious beliefs of the Founders, recalling that Jefferson excited opposition in the 1800 presidential campaign for his apparent indifference to religion, as well as his remark that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” She enlists Abe Lincoln in the secularist roll, although some scholars will object. She traces the origins of state mottos like “In God We Trust” and “one nation under God,” the one a sop to clerics during the Civil War, the other one of “a new, bland, and compulsory set of quasi-religious rituals” meant to serve as a Cold War repudiation of Soviet atheism. Jacoby closes by remarking that although the line between church and state now seems to be fading, most Americans regard that separation as desirable and “oppose the religious right’s attempts to sacralize decisions on such matters as biomedical research.”

Balm for doubting Thomases—and a welcome addition to American cultural history.

Pub Date: April 5th, 2004
ISBN: 0-8050-7442-2
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2004


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