The new book "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (Metropolitan Books), by writer and social critic Susan Jacoby, is a historical work but it is also an unabashed polemic on an acutely topical issue: the role of religion in public life in modern-day America. In the opening pages, Jacoby cites President Bush's presiding over an ecumenical prayer service at Washington's National Cathedral three days after the Sept. 11 attacks as evidence of "the erosion of America's secularist tradition." The book's publicity emphasizes this theme: The publisher's press release and four of the six blurbs (including ones from eminent writer Arthur Miller and historian Arthur Schlesinger) assert that free thought in America is under "unprecedented attack" from a rising tide of official religiosity.
The history in Jacoby's book is fascinating. She makes a convincing argument that, contrary to the assertions of many conservatives today, the Founding Fathers did, in fact, intend to create a secular government. The Constitution's lack of any reference to God or divine sanction was not an accidental oversight, or an omission of something that everyone implicitly took for granted anyway. On the contrary, the godlessness of the Constitution, along with its rejection of a religious test for public office, was a source of major controversy during the ratification debates. Religious traditionalists warned that the Constitution's irreligiousness would bring God's wrath down on American citizens -- in language reminiscent of claims by some of their modern-day descendants after Sept. 11 that God withdrew his protection from America because Americans have turned away from him.
Jacoby also cites evidence that Thomas Jefferson championed religious liberty not only for different religious denominations but for nonbelievers, and that James Madison wanted not only the federal government but the state governments to be prohibited from making laws that would either interfere with or promote religion.
And yet Jacoby's account also demonstrates that today's antisecularist backlash is far from unique -- rather, it's part of a cyclical pattern that has persisted throughout American history. At the end of the 18th century, the climate in which the Founders' Enlightenment rationalism flourished, gave way to the first "religious reaction." Indeed, Jacoby acknowledges that "had the Constitution been written in 1797 instead of 1787, it is entirely possible that God, not 'we, the people,' would have been credited with supreme governmental authority." Jefferson's and Madison's secularist views became a political liability; Thomas Paine, the British-born American patriot, was vilified and ostracized because of his opposition to organized religion.
Of the Civil War, Jacoby writes that "the intensity of the Christian imagery associated with the Union cause [was] never equaled before or since the war." ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a prime example.) Even in the late 19th century, which she calls the "Golden Age of Freethought," when outspoken atheists and agnostics such as attorney and orator Robert Ingersoll enjoyed success as public speakers, tolerance definitely had its fairly narrow limits. In an editorial after Ingersoll's death, The New York Times noted -- with approval -- that his irreligion had effectively barred him from a career in public service for which he was otherwise highly qualified.
The present-day backlash against secularism is a reaction to the decline of traditional religion in the 1960s and '70s, and to the secularist victories in the courts -- from the ban on school prayer to the legalization of abortion. Despite the religious revival of the past 20 years, in some ways our society is more secular than it ever was. With a few exceptions, the courts have maintained fairly solid barriers to religious intrusions in the public sphere (sometimes, arguably, to the extent of discriminating against religion). Jacoby deplores the use of tax-funded vouchers for parochial schools as an unprecedented breach of the church-state wall -- but it's useful to remember that for most of our history the curriculum of public schools was explicitly infused with Protestant Christian teachings.
Jacoby makes a powerful plea for a civic language that does not exclude nonbelievers. She notes that while religious references in public life today are emphatically nonsectarian and inclusive toward Jews, Muslims and Hindus, the nonreligious constitute a far larger segment of the population than any of these religious minorities. This is an important reminder. Intolerance toward atheists and agnostics, who are often viewed as less moral or even less patriotic than believers, remains one of the few forms of socially accepted bigotry.
But, for better or worse, there is nothing new about this bias. We live in a time of tension and conflict between secularists and religious traditionalists. As "Freethinkers" demonstrates, this tension is as American as apple pie.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.