Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2004. 448 pp. $17.00 (paperback).
In March 2010, the Texas State Board of Education acted to remove mentions of Thomas Jefferson from a standard history textbook. Texas students will now learn not about the author of the Declaration of Independence, but about the author of “The Word our Only Rule,” John Calvin.*
Hearing this news, those who have read Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism may be saddened or enraged, but they will not be surprised. Freethinkers includes stories of many Americans who challenged religion and, thus, were either erased from textbooks or had their views revised in order to remain.
Freethinkers begins at the founding of America—and with a fact that certain Texans seek to hide: The founders explicitly rejected the dogma of Calvin and his ilk and embraced a philosophy of reason and rights. For Revolutionary War heroes such as Ethan Allen, the “rejection of [an] all-powerful Calvinist deity went together with the rejection of the divine right of kings” (p. 18). What distinguished the most important revolutionary leaders, she argues, was their skepticism of such authoritarian sects, their conviction “that if God exists, he created human rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world,” and their view that an individual’s religion is and should be a private matter. “The logical extension of such beliefs,” says Jacoby, “was a civil government based not on the laws of God, as promulgated by self-appointed earthly spokesmen, but on the rights of man” (p. 15).
Jefferson was crucial to making this ideal form of government a reality. In addition to the Declaration of Independence, Jacoby points out that, in 1779, “Jefferson proposed a bill that would guarantee complete legal equality for citizens of all religions, and of no religion, in his home state of Virginia.” This, Jacoby says, was “the first plan in any of the thirteen states to call for complete separation of civil and religious authority” (p. 19). It read, in part, that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry . . . [and] that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion” (p. 24). Supported by, among others, James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, the bill passed in 1786, prompting Jefferson to observe that “it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions” (p. 25).
Jacoby says that “it is impossible to overstate the importance” of this act “for, much to the dismay of religious conservatives, it would become the template for the secularist provisions of the federal Constitution” (p. 19), including the provision that no religious test shall be required for officeholders; the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; and the Constitution’s “refusal to invoke any form of divine sanction” (pp. 28–29). . . .