This one has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I’m glad I finally got to it. The subtitle of the book is A History of American Secularism, and although this could be confused with American atheism, Jacoby is quite clear that both theists and atheists can be secularists.
Logically, the book begins during the time surrounding the American Revolution, focusing on the context in which the Constitution was written. Jacoby purports that several of the Founders, namely Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin, were deists – meaning they believed in a Creator that set things in motion, but does not interfere with the affairs of men. They had individual religious beliefs, but lived in a time when religion was a private affair. The majority of religious people were wary of mixing government and religion, as they’d witnessed first-hand the abuses of the Church of England. Jacoby gives a compelling argument for why the Founders certainly did not intend to found a Christian nation.
The subsequent chapters detail periods of strong rationalism in America as well as the push-back of the religious conservatives, as they grew in strength and influence. We see the pairing of abolitionists with feminists, and how today’s fundamentalists claim religion was the kickstarter to both movements, when in fact the Christian Bible was the primary weapon used against progress in civil rights throughout America’s history.
Jacoby certainly had an agenda in writing this book, but she avoids being unfairly critical of the religious right. In fact, she’s careful to acknowledge that the loudest fundamentalists never represented the American religious majority.
I wish this book had gotten more attention, as I think it’s very important. Too many people insert their own beliefs into American history without ever cracking open a textbook, but Freethinkers is a terrific introduction to America’s secular roots and history.