[extropy-chat] FWD (SK) 'Freethinkers': In America's Long Culture War, Under God or Under Citizens?

Terry W. Colvin fortean1 at mindspring.com
Thu Apr 1 19:23:32 UTC 2004

FWD (SK) 'Freethinkers': In America's Long Culture War, Under God
or Under Citizens?

Books of The Times | 'Freethinkers': In America's Long Culture War, Under 
God or Under Citizens?

March 31, 2004

"Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty, may have
found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries," James
Madison argued in 1784. "A just government, instituted to
secure and perpetuate" liberty, "needs them not." This
future drafter of the Constitution wrote with some urgency.
Patrick Henry was pushing a bill in the Virginia
legislature that would dip into tax revenues to employ
ministers from a variety of churches. The long struggle to
determine the place of religion in American politics had

Madison won this particular contest, but , Susan Jacoby
regrets in her new book that subsequent freethinkers have
fared poorly in the culture wars that have roiled society
since then. In the 19th century and the opening decades of
the 20th zealous Protestants secured laws to ban the sale
of alcohol, erotic literature and diaphragms, and the
teaching of Darwinian theory in public schools. Roman
Catholic censors took the offensive during the 1930's with
strictures against sex and four-letter words on screen that
Hollywood wove into its official Production Code.

For a few decades after, secularists fought back
successfully, aided by a strong American Civil Liberties
Union and a liberal Supreme Court. But a new Christian
right took the offensive in the 1970's and has never let up
in a campaign to install its morality in law and custom.
Ms. Jacoby concludes her book with a shudder as she
describes Justice Antonin Scalia's belief that the American
state derives its legitimacy not from the citizenry but
from God.

Still, one aspect of America's history fills her with hope.
Ardent and insightful, Ms. Jacoby seeks to rescue a proud
tradition from the indifference of posterity. Her title was
shrewdly chosen. "Freethinker" is what rebels against
spiritual authority once called themselves, and it ennobles
the breed with, if she'll excuse the term, the holiest
adjective in the lexicon of American politics. Her pantheon
of skeptics includes names like Jefferson, Paine, Darrow
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of "The Woman's Bible"
that ridiculed the sexism of the apostles. And she
rediscovers such figures as Robert Ingersoll, the Gilded
Age orator who drew huge audiences with calls for "a
religion of humanity" that would venerate only "inquiry,
investigation and thought."

Ms. Jacoby is no polemicist. She appreciates the pull of
religion - as community and creed - while criticizing her
own side for taking refuge in rational disdain. Beliefs,
she knows, cannot promote themselves: "Values are handed
down more easily and thoroughly by permanent institutions
than by marginalized radicals," she writes. To change
minds, "secular humanists must reclaim passion and emotion
from the religiously correct."

But as that last phrase suggests, Ms. Jacoby's book is
often more persuasive as a manifesto than as history. Not
surprisingly, she echoes some of the rickety prejudices of
her secular heroes and heroines. She tends to regard the
devout as thoroughly conservative in their politics and
views the Bible Belt as a benighted region needing external

American believers have never formed a reactionary bloc.
Both John Brown and the Christian socialist Edward Bellamy
- author of the best-selling utopian novel, "Looking
Backward" - yoked the language of the prophets to radical
causes. The Populists, who formed the largest third party
in United States history, were led by pious egalitarians
like Ignatius Donnelly, who preached that "Jesus was only
possible in a barefoot world, and he was crucified by the
few who wore shoes."

Ms. Jacoby plays down the spiritual motivations of civil
rights activists in the 1960's, pointing out that atheists
and Unitarians also marched and died for the cause. But for
most black Southerners, their freedom movement was a great
revival, as David Chappell explains in his compelling new
book, "A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of
Jim Crow." "Don't talk to me about atheism," Fannie Lou
Hamer, field-hand-turned-activist told Northern students in
1964. "If God wants to start a movement, then hurray for

It is also disappointing that Ms. Jacoby defends a popular
and controversial 1948 book, "American Freedom and Catholic
Power," by Paul Blanshard, a former Protestant minister,
which portrayed the the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy
of American freedom because it opposed birth control and
demanded that parochial schools receive a share of public

Blanshard, she claims, was blaming just the institution,
not the laity. But parochial schools were originally
established to provide an alternative to public ones where
students routinely learned only the virtues of the
Reformation and recited from the King James Version of the
Bible, commissioned by a Protestant monarch. And Ms. Jacoby
neglects the anger that Blanshard provoked with his
description of nuns as relics of "an age when women
allegedly enjoyed subjection and reveled in
self-abasement." Freethinkers can be intolerant, too.

One lesson that secularists might draw from Ms. Jacoby's
challenging book is to pick battles they can win. The task
of walling off state from church, synagogue or mosque has
always been distinct from and far less marginal than the
attempt to persuade Americans that religion is just a stew
of unprovable myths. Michael Newdow wins praise for arguing
that the Supreme Court should delete "under God" from the
Pledge of Allegiance. But his atheism appeals to a far
smaller audience.

On the other hand, freethinkers in the United States are
unlikely to talk many people into abandoning their belief
in an afterlife and their reverence for Scripture. In 1892
Ingersoll gave a lovely eulogy for his friend Walt Whitman,
whom, he said, "accepted and absorbed all theories, all
creeds, all religions, and believed in none." But this is a
difficult stance to take, and few Americans have ever taken

Religious diversity untrammeled by government is a hard-won
and signal achievement of our society, thanks to the
efforts of James Madison and other enlightened minds. It
would be unreasonable to suppose that a rigorous humanism
could replace this kind of freedom, which remains rare in a
world of warring faiths.

Michael Kazin is writing a biography of William Jennings
Bryan. He teaches history at Georgetown University.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company 

"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
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