Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers; Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln

[Broadband is down at home; posting will be limited as I'm on the internet at a noisy library terminal]

Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know nothing better than goodness. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. It is impossible to be juster than just. . . . Secularism has no 'castles in Spain.' It has no glorified fog. It depends upon realities, upon demonstrations; and its end and aim is to make this world better every day--to do away with poverty and crime, and to cover the world with happy and contented homes. (Robert Ingersoll, American secularist; quoted in Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers)

I'm finally reading Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, a book that was scheduled to come out in March, but which for some reason I didn't find in the bookstore until yesterday. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but so far I'm enjoying it, and learning a lot. The arguments about secularism aren't always convincing on every point, but the research she's done is great -- it fills in many gaps in my (admittedly paltry) knowledge of these chapters in American history. So far, I've read great chapters on the revolutionary period, Thomas Paine (who was more radical in his beliefs and in the manner of his life than I'd ever imagined), as well as Abraham Lincoln.

One of the most important benefits of Jacoby's argument about the Revolutionary period is the way she links the Evangelical Protestants (many of them southerners) with the elite freethinkers who were responsible for many of the signature features of the U.S. constitution -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. The evangelicals wanted to keep religious "tests" as well as any references to God out of the Constitution to protect their freedom to organize as well as proselytize. Baptists and Congregationalists were, therefore, key players in ensuring disestablishment, first in Virginia, and then nationally. Jacoby talks about this briefly in her Beliefnet interview:

A secular government was developed to protect the rights of religious minorities. Most Americans don't know that God is not mentioned in the Constitution. It was a coalition of religious Evangelicals and freethinkers or deists who joined together to get this ratified. And why did the Evangelicals want this then? Because they were a minority and they deeply feared government interference with religion. This Constitution basically placed the Episcopal Church, the established religion in the South before the Revolution, on a level playing field with all of the Evangelical Protestant denominations that were sprouting up. The effect of this was to enable them to proselytize for their own religion in ways that if there had been a union of established church and state they never would have been able to do. Ironically, it's the separation of church and state that has probably enabled religion to flourish throughout the 20th century in this country in ways that it doesn't in other developed nations.

Here are some reviews of the Jacoby, and my reactions to them:

1. Scott McLemee, in a generally positive review, 'grumbles' about Jacoby's over-use of the term "religiously correct" to describe versions of American history that try to simplify the broiling chaos of America's religious and irreligious sects in the interest of unifying American culture under the banner of Protestant Christianity.

2.. Richard Wrightman Fox's review in Slate points out a possible flaw that stems from Jacoby's own research, and that is visible between the lines of her history. And that is that so many of the primary figures in her story are of arguable importance -- they were always a little less than fully respectable, even if they were able to command large audiences.

As a history, Freethinkers does not look critically enough at the notion of "influence." Jacoby's favorite freethinker Robert Ingersoll, an Illinois lawyer and politician, evolved after the Civil War into a well-known "agnostic" lecturer and writer. But to call him "the preeminent orator of his generation" suggests a cultural centrality that he did not command. Infamous as much as famous, he entertained a mass audience without being widely followed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the greatest feminist thinker of the mid-19th century. But her stature stemmed from her general appeal for women's rights, not her dismissal of the churches or her challenge to divorce laws. Most contemporaries regarded her anticlericalism and her free-divorce advocacy as anachronistic survivals from an antebellum era strangely infatuated with "individual sovereignty." Tom Paine's influence took a steep dive as early as 1794, when his Age of Reason assailed Christianity as a laughable "mystery" religion. True, he remained a hero to many 19th-century American anticlerical rationalists. But every social and political viewpoint, secular or religious, gained adherents in a century that saw the population explode from 5 million to 75 million. Paine's relative influence declined dramatically even if the number of his admirers grew.

3. Alan Wolfe, in his New Republic review (not available online), talks about some interesting aspects of the debate that don't appear too much in Jacoby's book, including especially the notorious Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who in the late 1950s and 60s championed the effort to remove prayer from public schools. One of Wolfe's complaints about Jacoby is that in privileging non-believers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she neglects the important role played by pro-religious advocates in the women's rights movement in the 19th century:

One religious dissenter celebrated by Jacoby who did achieve significant historical fame is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader of the first wave of American feminism. Stanton spent a major portion of her late years writing The Woman's Bible, an attack on Christianity for its malecenteredness, and she also gave frequent speeches arguing that organized religion was hostile to women. In this regard, she stood in sharp contrast to Susan B. Anthony, who concluded, not without reason, that it would be good to have on the side of female suffrage all those myriad women willing to join a Christian temperance organization. By Jacoby's lights, we ought to be celebrating Anthony and forgetting Stanton--but, as even Jacoby concludes, Stanton is hardly treated as a non-person by contemporary feminists. And so Jacoby, to protect her thesis, shifts her ground. Yes, Stanton is well known, but "the essential role of agnostics in the women's rights movement has never been acknowledged."

The phrasing in this paragraph is a little shifty -- I don't think it's quite true that Jacoby shifts her ground; I think Wolfe is actually mischaracterizing her position.

4. Christopher Hitchens, in his Washington Post review, seems to really enjoy the book. His complaint is that Jacoby doesn't consider the importance of non-believing conservatives:

If the book has a fault, it is the near-axiomatic identification of the secular cause with the liberal one. Susan Jacoby has what might be called ACLU politics. To read her, you would not know that two of the most prominent intellectual gurus of American conservatism -- Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss -- were both determined nonbelievers. H.L. Mencken, who if not exactly a conservative was certainly not a liberal, had vast contempt for religion but is cited only briefly here for his role in the Scopes trial in Tennessee.

There's probably some truth in this, though it seems a little self-serving on Hitchens' part to mention it.

5. Michael Kazin's review, in the New York Times, is a little disappointing. He ends the review with a couple of paragraphs that don't quite make sense:

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 it.

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.

But Jacoby isn't arguing that reason should replace freedom... Nowhere does she say that secularism requires that people give up the freedom to religious expression and belief.

[Expect more on Jacoby from me in the next few days]


Greg said...

Extremely interesting post. Fascinating take on the roots of religious freedom. Looking forward to your further comments. Thanks.

12:30 PM  

<< Home