No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Freethinkers, by Susan Jacoby

A History of American Secularism

A fascinating look at the idea of secular government from the Founders to the present, and how the idea has shifted from Enlightenment ideals to the Golden Age of Freethought in the 19th century, when the Great Agnostic Ingersoll could give the nominating speech for a Republican candidate for president (even in the good old days, when Republicans were the party of abolition). To the emergence of fundamentalism in the early 20th and its later common cause partnership with conservative Catholicism, and the response with the freethinker's coalition with liberal Protestantism and (secular) Judaism.

The historical detail is quite excellent, but as the time grows nearer the present, a hint of polemicism arises. I don't disagree with her, but the shift in tone is noticeable in the last chapter or so.

More a note to myself for potential further reading...

The Reverend Timothy Dwight, who, as president of Yale, would play a leading role in a concerted effort to reestablish religious orthodoxy in the postrevolutionary nation, described [Ethan] Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784) as “the first formal publication, in the United States, openly directed against the Christian religion.” 7 A disorganized and stylistically clumsy writer, Allen never achieved the influence or notoriety that accompanied the dissemination of Paine’s The Age of Reason a decade later. But his book, in spite of and also because of its rough-hewn style, offers considerable insight into the revolutionary connection between political and religious freedom.


But the secularism of the Constitution did produce substantial controversy during the ratification debates conducted by state conventions. The framers were denounced by religious traditionalists both for the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for public office and for its failure to acknowledge God as the ultimate governmental authority. The opposition to article 6 frequently took an anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic tone. At the Massachusetts convention, one speaker warned that unless the chief executive was required to take a religious oath, “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.”
But the omission of God elicited the most inflamed rhetoric. The Reverend John M. Mason, a fiery New York Federalist who did not share John Adams’s views, declared the absence of God in the Constitution “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” If American citizens should prove as irreligious as the Constitution, the Reverend Mr. Mason warned, “we will have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing, and crush us to atoms in the wreck.”

God has been setting out to destroy the godless United States from even before it was formed!

When Connecticut finally disestablished the Congregationalist Church in 1818, Jefferson, in a letter to Adams, could not contain his joy at the news that “this den of the priesthood is at last broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.” 29 Adams and Jefferson shared the hope that Connecticut’s religious liberalization would influence Massachusetts to follow suit. Before Connecticut’s action, Jefferson had considered both states “the last retreat of Monkish darkness, bigotry, and abhorrence of those advances of the mind which had carried the other states a century ahead of them. They still seemed to be exactly where their forefathers were . . . and to consider, as dangerous heresies, all innovations good or bad.”


In a speech to the class of [17]’97 he asserted that “the fashionable bias of the present time will be readily acknowledged to be unfavorable to Christianity.”

Those godless liberal college perfessers!

Between 1790 and 1830, approximately half of the tax-supported Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts were transformed into Unitarian congregations. Many historians have argued that the success of the Unitarian movement, which tended to attract the most educated members of New England communities, was an important and enduring factor in the greater acceptance of Christianity by influential Americans than by their counterparts in Europe. 15 Liberal Protestantism in America, by virtue of its opposition to state-established churches, fitted comfortably into and made a major contribution to the secularist foundations of the republic. Another way of looking at Unitarianism is that it moved religion itself into the camp of Enlightenment rationalism.


The conjunction of radical abolitionism with early feminism is an important chapter in the history of American secularism because those who came of age in the 1820s and 1830s were the first generation of American social reformers to make the connection between reactionary religion and reactionary domestic social institutions. Unlike the grievances of the eighteenth-century colonists, nineteenth-century injustices could not be blamed on a tyrannical English king but were indisputably made in America.

Nevertheless, Sarah and Angelina shocked even some of their most radical coreligionists when they took the extraordinary step of speaking out against slavery before audiences that included both women and men—and blacks as well as whites. For a woman to speak before mixed audiences was even more shocking than for a woman to speak in public, but the Grimkés had something to say that no one else could. Because they had been raised to take their appointed places as mistresses of a slave plantation, they could testify from firsthand experience not only to the degradation of slaves but to the corruption of masters.
“We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of woman in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad; in Sabbath-schools; in leading religious inquirers to the pastors for instruction; and in all such associated effort as becomes the modesty of her sex,” the ministers conceded, “but when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer . . . her character becomes unnatural.”

Here's perhaps an interesting analogue of the "don't make me bake a gay cake" controversy.

The 1810 law not only required that the mails be kept moving on Sunday but that all post offices remain open for at least one hour. Indeed, this was a great service to the many rural church members who came to town only once a week—for Sunday services—and were able to pick up their mail afterward. But the convenience of the faithful carried no weight with clergymen like Beecher, who, along with that longtime foe of infidels Yale’s President Dwight, led unceasing campaigns for repeal of the law.
a nationwide organization known as the General Union for the Promotion of the Christian Sabbath (GUPCS). Among its other activities, which included circulating 100,000 copies of one of Beecher’s talks denouncing the Sabbath-breaking postal authorities, GUPCS encouraged its members to boycott any private companies that helped transport mail on Sunday.
What Congress received from Johnson in 1828 was a report declaring, in uncompromising terms, that any federal attempt to give preference to the Christian Sabbath would be a clear violation of the Constitution. The senator, who was no scholar, had considerable help in the preparation of his report from his friend Obadiah Brown, a Baptist minister and, conveniently, a postal clerk thoroughly familiar with the exigencies of mail delivery. In spite of bearing the drab title Senate Report on the Subject of Mails on the Sabbath, Johnson’s brief—filled with Enlightenment language and concepts—proved to be hot news and was reprinted in newspapers in every state.

It's worth reading, just for the verbiage (see March 4-5, 1830 in the link above) and how unlikely any current Senator would say something like: "With the exception of the United States, the whole human race, consisting, it is supposed, of eight hundred million of rational beings, is in religious bondage; and, in reviewing the scenes of persecution which history everywhere presents, unless the committee could believe that the cries of the burning victim, and the flames by which he is consumed, bear to heaven a grateful incense, the conclusion is inevitable that the line cannot be too strongly drawn between church and state."

Or more germane to the gay cakes: "Do the petitioners allege that they cannot conscientiously participate in the profits of the mail contracts and post offices because the mail is carried on Sunday ? If this be their motive, then it is worldly gain which stimulates to action and not virtue and religion. Do they complain that men, less conscientious in relation to the Sabbath, obtain advantages over them by receiving their letters and attending to their contents? Still their motive is worldly and selfish. But if their motive be to make Congress to sanction by law their religious opinions and observances, then their efforts are to be resisted as in their tendency fatal both to religious and political freedom. ... It is the duty of this Government to afford to all, to Jew or Gentile, Pagan or Christian, the protection and the advantages of our benignant institutions on Sunday, as well as every day of the week. "

Apparently Sunday mail finally stopped around 1912. (Except where the Sabbatarians got their way.)

One failed attempt to amend the godless Constitution:
After rejecting acknowledgment of “Almighty God” and “His revealed will” as too imprecise, the ministers finally agreed on a rewording of the preamble that would replace “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” with “Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government . . .”

American freethought in the West was largely a product of the kind of self-education that shaped Ingersoll’s early life. Agnostics on the frontier also displayed much less deference than easterners did to liberal religious sensibilities, mainly because fundamentalist Bible-thumping evangelists—not the more accommodating Unitarians or Universalists—were the most influential representatives of Protestantism west of the Mississippi. Since fundamentalists did not hesitate to condemn freethinkers to hell, freethinkers on the frontier were equally blunt in their ridicule of religion.

But no issue, including birth control, was more important to Jews than the continuing Catholic denigration of America’s public schools. If Catholic anticommunism made the church seem more American, the hierarchy’s unrelenting hostility to public education kept alive both Jewish and Protestant suspicions of the Catholic relationship to traditional American values.
“Our first duty to the public school is not to pay taxes for its maintenance,” he argued. “We pay that tax under protest; not because we admit an obligation in justice.” The main obligation of every Catholic father toward the public school, he added acidly, was “to keep his children out of it.”
In the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, fifty-three women signed a declaration, addressed to the Nixon White House, under the simple headline WE HAVE HAD ABORTIONS. The prominent signers included Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara Tuchman, folksinger Judy Collins, tennis star Billie Jean King, and Steinem, editor in chief of the new magazine and a media darling.

✓one-word title
Tags: atheism, history, law, malebutnotnarrow, politics, religion, straightbutnotnarrow, whitebutnotnarrow

  • Mexico City Photos resurrected

    here they be Dr. Pookie's photos, including lots of food pics, are here.

  • Vacation Photos

    Dr. Pookie and I took a whirlwind tour, hitting up San Jose (where we had a great time with relatives), San Francisco, a train to Reno, and then back…

  • funny images

    Smash What's on God's iPod? IZO clearly wins the Phriday mockery of Thomas Kinkade.

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded