Secular Illusions

The right way to rescue America from religious correctness.

In Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby sets out to rescue us from the “apostles of religious correctness.” She blames this amorphous group for smudging the line between church and state, weakening the hold of science in public education, and airbrushing great secularists such as Tom Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Ingersoll out of American history. Jacoby concedes that religion has often propelled social reform, but she thinks that secular “Enlightenment values”—the heart of the freethinking tradition—have been slighted in standard accounts of the American past.

Jacoby departs from earlier liberal counterattacks against the religious right by faulting liberals nearly as much as conservatives for riding roughshod over our secular heritage. She is incensed that President Bush strode into Washington’s National Cathedral after 9/11 and asked God to “always guide our country.” When addressing the whole nation, presidents should avoid sectarian pulpits or religious language that inevitably excludes nonbelievers like her. But the Democrats, far from mounting effective resistance to President Bush’s official piety, have in Jacoby’s view climbed on the holy bandwagon, too. She winces at Al Gore’s comment in 2000 that he frequently asks himself, “What would Jesus do?” She fumes at Joe Lieberman’s support for faith-based initiatives, accusing him of forgetting his European Jewish ancestors. Jacoby thinks they would have cared more than Lieberman does “about what erosion of the church-state barrier might do to Jews.”

Many readers across the political spectrum will applaud Jacoby’s call for defending scientific literacy in the face of the Evangelicals’ “intelligent design” theory, which rules out “evolution across species.” But does reason as such need shoring up against the power of religion, and does the separation of church and state require keeping religion out of politics? Many liberals will contend that secularists such as Jacoby are wrong to ask religious Americans to keep their beliefs “private.” Religious commitment does not automatically entail reduced devotion to reason or to pluralism. And even liberals who share Jacoby’s sense that religiosity and rationality are fundamentally at odds may balk at her claim that freethinking is the right way to promote the primacy of reason. Jacoby has greatly overstated the influence of free thought in the American past, and hence overestimated the prospects for getting it back as a vibrant social force.

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.

Another drawback in Jacoby’s historical account is her loose definition of “freethinker.” She announces initially that the group includes both “the truly antireligious” (like Ingersoll) and those who embraced “some form of God or Providence” while resisting “orthodox religious authority.” But then she sometimes implies that the tiny antireligious cohort of Ingersoll and his ilk are the authentic freethinkers. And sometimes she expands the second category to include a famous American like Lincoln, who certainly stood aloof from the churches but hardly stood against them. Meanwhile, she overlooks the most significant 19th-century group that fits perfectly within her second type: liberal Protestants such as O. B. Frothingham, who formed the Free Religion movement after the Civil War and probably did more to spread secularism under religious auspices than agnostics such as Ingersoll could ever dream of doing with outright secularist appeals.

A thoroughgoing history of secularism in America would put this paradox at the center: Secularity took root not so much because heroic dissenters such as Paine, Stanton, and Ingersoll preached it, but because a vast army of religious Americans, mostly churchgoing liberal Protestants, pushed for it. Jacoby recognizes that religious and secular impulses have overlapped in American history, but she does not note how deeply interwoven they have been. She observes, correctly, that an anti-slavery Quaker such an Angelina Grimké drew on the Enlightenment as well as the Bible, and that Martin Luther King Jr. chose secular as well as religious advisers. The additional point is that many secular militants, such as Eugene Debs, turned to religion as personal comfort and organizing tool. And many clerical activists, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, embraced secularity as personal style and ethical ideal. Secularism established itself in America by attaching itself to religion, and religion modernized itself by embracing secularity. The religious and the secular have been joined at the historical hip.

Jacoby is right that we should defend the separation of church and state. As Madison and Jefferson grasped, separation protects religion from trivialization as much as it guards nonbelievers from subtle or blatant coercion. When endorsed by public officials, Jesus loses his edge. Christ the certified tribal icon can serve as a marker of social propriety but not as a divine judge or a demanding prophet. We can all be thankful that President Bush did not declare June 10 to be “Jesus Day,” as he did when he was governor of Texas. Religious Americans need to realize that faith gains, rather than loses, when it refuses official stamps of approval and when it is kept out of the teaching of science. Of course for believers, authentic faith informs all of life, but faith is nevertheless put at risk when it is clumsily introduced into an area of knowledge in which it is incompetent.

Liberals stand a better chance of containing the religious right if they revive John Dewey’s and William James’ religion-friendly pragmatism rather than Robert Ingersoll’s religion-averse freethinking. Dewey, James, Jane Addams, and other pragmatists can supply liberals with everything Jacoby’s freethinkers can give them: a this-worldly focus on using reason and science to build community, increase tolerance, cherish diversity, and guard the essential line between church and state. A Christian pragmatist such as Reinhold Niebuhr can also give religious liberals—Christian, Jewish, or nondenominational—a theological framework for defending the secular against the undue influence of the religious.

Niebuhr welcomed religion into politics but cautioned that politics had to be protected against the fanaticism that religion always tended to spark. Politics needed religion to keep itself pointed toward social justice. Left to its own devices, politics got stuck in a scuffle of one interest group against another. Granted, Enlightenment reason contributed a crucial tool for citizens and policymakers. But reason alone could never mobilize people to look beyond the defense of their own interests. The dual standpoint of Jewish and Christian belief—human beings were both sinners and creatures made in the image of God—offered a firm foundation for socially progressive politics. Knowing themselves as sinners could lead people to self-criticism and to tolerance of other viewpoints; knowing themselves as God’s creatures could incline them to favor the well-being of their neighbors. The goal of justice could also prompt religious believers to build politically effective coalitions across the religious-secular spectrum, rather than using politics to impose their convictions on the nonreligious.

Niebuhr thought that sustained moral energy in politics depended on religion’s power to mobilize reason along with self-transcending love. The prophetic tradition, meanwhile, gave Jews and Christians some protection against the temptation to identify their social causes with God’s will. Lincoln’s second inaugural address expressed the prophetic insight, “The almighty has His own purposes.” Jacoby actually comes close to Niebuhr’s position when she concludes that freethinkers should find a way make their public advocacy passionate as well as rational. And Niebuhr came close to Jacoby’s position when he reflected that secular saints sometimes put religious ones to shame by slogging for justice without any thought of what was in it for them.