Tuesday, May 24, 2005


It took a while, but I have finally finished Susan Jacoby’s “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” (Owl Books, 2004). It’s a little more of a survey than I’d hoped, secularism’s struggle through the ages rather than a full examination of its underpinnings from when the country was forming.

This is, I suppose, not so much a fault with the book as it is a disappointment of my own, but dealing with an era per chapter leads inevitably to glibness. In discussing Ethan Allen’s 1784 tract “Reason the Only Oracle of Man,” Jacoby sums up that

The link between political and religious freethought was not always so explicitly drawn, but it was always in the air. It should not therefore be surprising that, even before the end of the Revolutionary War, a radical new vision of absolute separatism of church and state was set forward by freethinkers as the logical outgrowth of political independence.

A “radical new vision” is given as simple evolution from a concept said to be “always in the air,” but without sourced support that the concept is so prevalent, the evolution could be taken as a quantum leap rather than evolution — and so it is with the entire book, in which everything rests on Revolutionary War underpinnings that get little more attention than any other period. I sought solid detail on the reasoning giving us our wall between church and state, but Jacoby is compelled to speed through so much, and leave so much out, that the wall seems to appear out of nowhere, already built, and although we know the foundations are there, we don’t get to examine them fully for solidity or skill.

Perhaps a better metaphor would be a cooking show where, to cram a lot into a short time, the chef’s demonstration whips through a recipe, barely giving viewers time to note the ingredients, then takes from the oven the final dish, cooked earlier to show what the final product should look like. Voila: Separation Souffle. Oh, darn, it fell.

Again, this is not really Jacoby’s fault — except perhaps the degree of glibness — in that “Freethinkers” really is a survey of the movement, if it can be called that, through the ages. The speed at which the book moves, if unhelpful in fighting those tearing down the wall, at least makes it readable and affirming that the tools for defense and reconstruction are out there somewhere.

She notes keenly, for instance, that President Bush’s post-9/11 speech in Washington’s National Cathedral, ecumenical as it was, was also an unnecessary ramping up of religiosity in what had been a time for all people to come together.

Bush’s very presence in the pulpit attested powerfully to the erosion of America’s secularist tradition; most of his predecessors would have regarded the choice of religious sanctuary for a major speech as a gross violation of the respect for separation of church and state constitutionally required of the nation’s chief executive. Franklin D. Roosevelt did not try to assuage the shock of Pearl Harbor by using an altar as the backdrop for his declaration of war, and Abraham Lincoln, who never belonged to a church, delivered the Gettysburg Address not from a sanctuary but on the field where so many soldiers had given “the last full measure of devotion.”

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