Democracy and Reason

Susan Jacoby  

     ... independent scholar and reporter. Author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Ms. Jacoby’s six previous books include Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Ms. Jacoby is Director of the Center For Inquiry/Metro NY and a contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, Harper’s, Vogue and The New Republic

Edited Excerpts
Conversation 1 RealAudio3:18

“We, the People...” are revolutionary words, now under attack in the very country which famously gave those words to the world. America’s Founding Fathers, many of them “Freethinkers,” deliberately created the world’s first secular nation when they began the U.S. Constitution “We, the People” and left “God” out.

Now the secular has faded from center stage with the rise of what Susan Jacoby calls the “religiously correct.” For too long, she says, secularists have allowed others to define -- and demonize -- them. She is a secularist, scholar and reporter proud of the vital role secularism has played in the American democratic experiment. So she set out to revivalize this deeply American tradition in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

“‘Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know of nothing better than good. Secularism teaches us to be just, here and now. I know of nothing juster than just. Secularism teaches us to make the world a better place every day, to attempt to cover it with happy and contented homes,’” Ms. Jacoby says, quoting Robert Ingersoll, one of the most influential voices in the 19th century, a person now largely forgotten.

These powerful secular values are grounds for a solid morality, Ms. Jacoby says, noting they can also be the values of religious people. She is encouraged that many secular and religious people find important common ground in a here-and-now, secular approach to public affairs -- defending the deeply American idea that church and state are best kept in distinctly different realms. It is this very separation, she says, that has allowed all religions to flourish in the United States.

The Founding Fathers also intentionally erected a very high wall between religion and government, church and state, intent on keeping each out of the others’ sphere of influence, she documents. Today’s amalgamation of religion and patriotism is dangerous, Ms. Jacoby says, because it blurs the lines between church and state. It is not appropriate for the President of the United States to present himself as a minister, she says, objecting to George W. Bush standing in a pulpit essentially declaring war in September, 2001. The correct place to declare war in a secular country is before the joint Houses of Congress, says she, reciting how President-as-minister leads to dangerous wars advanced under the slogan, “God is on our side.”

The time is now to learn from America’s “freethinkers” -- those who believe in a God, those who do not and those who are agnostic -- Ms. Jacoby is certain. It’s a rich legacy stretching from revolutionary Tom Paine to W.E.B. DuBois, Ernestine Rose, William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln, from to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll to Clarence Darrow and stalwarts throughout the 20th century. Free thought, Susan Jacoby shows, is a strong counterforce to the dangers she fears -- religion melded with political ideology and political power, betraying democracy by serving its own narrow and sectarian ends.

[This Program was recorded August 5, 2004, in New York City.]

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Conversation 1

Susan Jacoby describes classic “freethinkers” for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. She explains why it was revolutionary to declare that “We, the People...” -- not “God” -- are the legal foundation of the United States.


Conversation 2

Ms. Jacoby refreshes the important legacies of Revolutionary patriot Tom Paine and the 19th century’s Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll. Most Americans learn about “freedom of religions,” but not about Constitution guarantees that government be free from religious interference, she says, and expands. She contrasts today’s aggressive attacks on the separation of church and state to the reality that it is this separation that has allowed so many religions to flourish in the U.S. The revolutionary nature of America becoming the world’s first secular nation is explored.


Conversation 3

Slavery and the church were intimately connected, a legacy seen today in “red” and “blue” states, says Ms. Jacoby. She explains what happened. Dissent today seems muted compared to earlier times, she believes, wondering what today’s reaction would be to Abraham Lincoln, a freethinker who kept his personal religious perspective to himself and explicitly refused to join any church.


Conversation 4

Walt Whitman was also a freethinker, Ms. Jacoby says. While Whitman is now part of the “canon” of American poetry, few know about his passionate commitments to a secular perspective. Morality does not require religion, she insists, and describes how public affairs are the place where people who take a secular approach to life find common ground with those who prefer a religious one. Abraham Lincoln’s experience is used to show the dangers of looking to God for solutions to political problems, as the horrible results of mixing religion and politics are revisited. Ms. Jacoby says the view of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- that the U.S. government derives its power from God -- is incompatible with democracy.


Conversation 5

Secularisms’ values are about being good, just, and making the world a better place, Ms. Jacoby says, pointing out that these are values shared by many religious people. She applauds liberal religious groups working to reclaim “religion” from the same people who besmirch “secularism.” There are serious consequences when the wall the Founding Father’s created between religion and politics is breached, Ms. Jacoby says, using “faith-based grants” as an example. She objects to the demonization of “liberalism” and voices concern that secularists as well as liberals have allowed others to define them.


Conversation 6

The amalgamation of religion and patriotism is unhealthy, Ms. Jacoby observes, disturbed that “9/11” accelerated this trend which she believes is now dangerous. It is inappropriate for the President of the United States to present himself as a minister, she insists, distressed that this posture leads to dangerous wars based on the one individual’s religious preferences.



We thank Ms. Jacoby for her gracious welcome to the Center For Inquiry - Metro New York office where she is Director. We also thank her for introducing us to her colleagues and to the larger vision of Center For Inquiry International.


Related Links:

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, is published by Metropolitan Books, part of Henry Holt & Company.

For more about the secular in America today visit the website of the Center for Inquiry - Metro New York, the Center for Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry International.

At almost precisely the opposite end of the secular-religious spectrum in American history (and equally forgotten, or suppressed) is the story of an authentically religious man, John Brown, told beautifully by David Reynolds.

In American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips, shows the effects of a fundamentalist view of religion on America's current and future well-being.

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