Author of Freethinkers, Reminds Us of America's Proud Tradition:
"Religious Freedom from Government Interference...and Government
Freedom from Religious Interference"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
...liberals tend to be looking for common ground, but I don't believe
the right wing in this country wants common ground. To liberals and people
who believe in secular government – I say forget about the fundamentalists.
Appeal to the 60 or 70 percent of the American people who aren't fundamentalists
– who may have lots of religious beliefs, but who also believe in secular
government. Don't waste time trying to persuade people who believe that
the earth was created in seven days. You're not going to persuade those
people of anything.
* * *
Susan Jacoby, a fervent believer in the separation of church
and state, recently spoke with BuzzFlash about America's historical roots
in secularism, or freedom of religion. Her latest book, Freethinkers:
A History of American Secularism (a BuzzFlash premium), is an
exploration of the rich history of our secular country, a nation conceived
in the "Age of Reason," in response to European religious oppression.
As she argues so persuasively, our American revolution, our heroic and
enlightened founders, and our unique Constitution left behind the old
European model of governments founded on a fixed religious hierarchy and
belief in the divine rights of monarchs. America was founded to allow
religious thought and practice, not to endorse a single form of it. Trouble
is, some of our most powerful leaders today would have us march right
back to that pre-revolutionary, "divinely inspired" model of
Susan Jacoby is director of the Center for Inquiry - Metro
New York, as well as an independent scholar, author of seven books, a
respected journalist and a Guggenheim Fellow.
* * *
BuzzFlash: The chapter in your book entitled
"Reason Embattled" is of special interest to BuzzFlash, because
we’ve covered Antonin Scalia's religious outlook quite a bit. In that
chapter, you refer to a speech Supreme Court Justice Scalia gave at the
Chicago Divinity School, which went largely unnoticed by the media. More
recently, he has been stampeding around the country, making speeches to
synagogues, saying that Jews would be safer in a Christian nation. At
a recent Knights of Columbus meeting, he proclaimed that no one should
be afraid to be a fool for Christ. Amidst all his proselytizing, you bring
up the point that he uses this rationale as an argument for capital punishment
– that this is a Christian nation and the United States -- as a Christian
nation -- shouldn't question the notion of capital punishment because
it's really divine dictum, in a way.
Susan Jacoby: Well, actually he's more general than that.
His argument is simply this: that capital punishment is lawful because
all just governments derive their power from God.
That's number one, ignoring the fact that our Constitution says nothing
about God, but ascribes powers to "we the people." And so the
argument, by extension, for a death penalty is simply this: that because
God has the power of life and death, and since all just governments derive
their power not from the consent of the governed, but from God Himself
– and I'm sure Scalia's God is a Himself, not a Herself – therefore, governments,
too, should have power over life and death.
Scalia is a devout right-wing Catholic, and one of the things that's mildly
interesting about this is the one problem he has with that is the fact
that it's been denounced by the Pope, who argues exactly the opposite
– that only God should have the power of life and death. But I guess that
makes Scalia more Catholic than the Pope.
But in terms of American government, what is so disturbing is this argument
in favor of a public policy -- which one can certainly argue about on
secular grounds -- on the grounds that if God can do it, so too can we,
because we get our power of the government from God, according to Scalia.
BuzzFlash: Your book,
Freethinkers, of course, debunks the notion that the Constitution
was a document that was written as, let’s say, the Ten Commandments –
something that was given from God to the founders of this country. They
expressly wrote out that this was NOT a divine document, but it was a
document of reason and of reasonable men at the time. BuzzFlash is also
offering a book on the Founding Fathers and their opinions on the separation
of church and state, where it is quite clear that they thought they should
be separated. So how does Scalia get away with calling himself a strict
constructionist of the Constitution when....
Susan Jacoby: Somehow that’s very interesting, because,
in fact, Scalia has often called the Constitution a dead document, meaning
that it means exactly what it said when it was written at the time, but
no more. And that’s why he calls himself a strict constructionist.
But in fact, reading God into the Constitution is the exact opposite of
strict constructionism. In fact, leaving God out of the Preamble to the
Constitution – it was revolutionary. There had never been a government
that legally separated church and state before, and it was very deliberate.
The omission of God from the Constitution was debated at all of the state
ratifying conventions about the Constitution before and when it was finally
And the Christian right at the time – the right-wing ministers – were
very opposed and predicted that God would smash America for leaving Him
out of the document. And by the way, this was a division then, too, between
conservative and liberal religion, not only between conservative religious
people and freethinkers, because religious dissidents also supported the
separation of church and state strongly in the Constitution. And indeed,
it was a coalition of freethinkers – of people like Thomas Jefferson and
Thomas Paine – and dissident Evangelicals – Baptists, for instance, who
were then the minority religion in most states, who joined in this coalition
to support the separation of church and state. How far we have come from
BuzzFlash: You quote Justice Scalia in your book as saying,
"The more Christian the nation is, the less likely it is to regard
the death penalty as immoral." Abolition of capital punishment has
taken hold in what Scalia would view as post-Christian Europe, meaning
what Rumsfeld would call "the old Europe." And so there's this
common theme between him and Rumsfeld, which is sort of a little footnote
– that the old Europe is somehow decadent. And in Scalia's term, it's
because it has fallen out of the fundamentalist religious sphere of influence.
And to Rumsfeld, it has fallen out of the military powers' sphere of influence.
And the United States is a God-fearing Christian nation, and therefore
we believe in capital punishment, or at least Scalia does.
Susan Jacoby: There are a whole lot of Christians who
don't believe in capital punishment. In fact, it's a very strong strain
in Christian churches. Those who believe in capital punishment in a religious
sense are the right-wing Christians. And, by the way, there are a good
many extremely right-wing Jews, on the right wing of Judaism, who also
believe in capital punishment. This is not a divide between Christian
and non-Christian. It's a divide within religion as well as between religious
people and freethinkers.
BuzzFlash: Your book is subtitled "The History of
American Secularism." My next question is this: we have a President
who says he was chosen by the divine power to rule, and that he told Bob
Woodward that he – his source of guidance and inspiration is a father
Susan Jacoby: A higher father.
BuzzFlash: A higher father than George Bush the first.
Susan Jacoby: Right.
BuzzFlash: And although he's toned it down a little recently,
post-election, until then he was convinced that his decisions were correct
because they were divinely inspired. Rather than that he was responsible
to the people, he was responsible to God, and God's guidance would guide
the American nation: divine guidance would be Bush's inspiration. We thought
that in the sixties or seventies, America seemed, if anything, to be accelerating
into a more secular nation through technology, through the emancipation
of women, through civil rights. And now, as Mark Crispin Miller says,
we have an administration that goes back to basically pre-Enlightenment.
Susan Jacoby: I think that's right. We really need to
think about this not in terms of any contrast with the sixties, but in
a much larger time frame. And I think the difference now, and why George
Bush is a really unique figure in American history, is there have been
lots of Presidents who were devout believers in God. But there has never
been a President, before, who set himself up as the leader or the spokesman
for one religious faction in the country.
And I think a really good comparison in terms of attitudes toward God
and the role God plays in public rhetoric and public decisions really
is with Abraham Lincoln. He talked about God a lot. And one of the points
he made over and over again was that both Northerners and Southerners
prayed to the same God supposedly -- but the Northern God told the people
in the North at the time that it was right to go to war to end slavery,
and the Southern God told Southerners that God Himself supported slavery,
and it was their right to go to war to uphold that divinely inspired institution.
And right there is the quandary and the dilemma and the wrongness of citing
God as a final authority for public policy, because what we all know is
that whatever one believes about God, God speaks to people in different
voices, and darned if that voice usually isn't the voice of what we already
That's the problem of citing God as a justification for capital punishment
or war. You close down any public discourse when you do that because,
presumably, people who take their inspiration from their vision of God
are convinced that they know the will of God. And even though their neighbor
may know the will of a completely different God, you just – you close
down any discussion, when God is appealed to as the sort of President-in-Chief.
BuzzFlash: Well, your book is entitled Freethinkers.
But to the right wing of the Republican Party, which is the faction that's
in charge of the White House and the Executive Branch and Congress now,
freethinking is almost heretical. Instead we have group think. We support
the nation, the homeland, the fatherland. We support the war whether it's
right or wrong. A recent poll indicated that 66% of Republicans said they
would support the United States in a war whether the war was right or
wrong. Freethinking individualism, thoughts and reasoning outside of group
think, are now branded as unpatriotic. And yet when the Constitution was
created at the time of the revolutionary period, it was a vote against
the very concept of group think, of monarchy, and was a radical recalibration
of government to the people themselves deciding what form of government
they want. Now, we're really back to the monarchy type of structure, where
decisions come down from up high and are considered unchallengeable.
Susan Jacoby: There are a lot of reasons for that. They
don't all have to do with the rise of religious fundamentalism. One of
the questions today – and I’m asked this a lot – is if fundamentalists
are a much larger group of people in America than in any other developed
country. By most standards, you define a fundamentalist as someone, whether
Christian or Jewish or Muslim, who believes the literal interpretation
of what their sacred scripture is – that the world was created in seven
days, or that you get to have sex with a whole lot of virgins if you die
for Allah, for instance. The fundamentalist is someone who believes in
the absolute sacredness and unalterability of his text. Probably that
minority in America is between about one-fifth and one-third, which leaves
two-thirds of people who aren’t fundamentalists.
So why do fundamentalists have such influence? Well, one answer for that
is that, by very virtue of the intensity of their religious beliefs, they
care more about their issues than a lot of more secular people, and they
do more to see that their influence is felt.
Most people who are freethinkers or secularists or liberal religious thinkers
don’t spend their whole day thinking about God and how every decision
in government accords with their religion. But fundamentalists do. That
makes them much better organized, much better disciplined and goal-oriented
in both a specific and a general way than more secular people tend to
be. And I think that has to change.
I think the reluctance of Democrats to come out and defend the separation
of church and state strongly is lamentable. I don’t agree with those people
who say the Democrats have to make themselves more like Republicans, and
talk about God more. No, that doesn’t do any good. I think, by the way,
one of the reasons George Bush appealed to people, whether they agree
with him or not, is that he is perfectly honest about what he is in terms
of his religious and political beliefs. The Democrats, by contrast – many
of them tend to soft-pedal what they really think about things like the
separation of church and state. And it doesn’t work to pretend to be something
BuzzFlash: Well, isn’t there a paradox – the nation was
created to embrace secularism, to embrace individuality, to embrace the
will of the people –
Susan Jacoby: And religious freedom – don’t forget that.
BuzzFlash: And religious freedom.
Susan Jacoby: And that’s a very important part of it,
BuzzFlash: And to keep the government from imposing a
particular viewpoint upon people. In this case, we seem to be seeing in
Antonin Scalia and in George W. Bush,that they want the federal government
to impose a certain perspective – a fundamentalist religious perspective
on the population as a whole.
Susan Jacoby: Right. This policy is right because God
says it's right. I was on a radio show with a very prominent conservative
commentator named Michael Medved, who's an Orthodox Jew. And on this show,
a caller called in and said, "You know, I'm praying for you, Miss
Jacoby, so you'll accept Jesus and you won't, you know, go to hell."
And I said on the air – I said how patronizing that is, how typical this
is. I said, wouldn't anybody of any religion be offended if I said I was
hoping that they would see the light and become an atheist?
And Michael Medved said, "I know." He said he was Jewish and
people came up to him at book signings – Christians – and said, "You
know, you're a great guy and I agree with what you say. But I'm praying
that you'll accept the Lord Jesus." He said, "I'm not offended
Well, you know, he ought to be offended by it. It really amazes me, for
instance, to see these male, conservative Jews acting like the fundamentalist
Christians are their very best friends. The whole Jewish success story
in America arises from America's unique separation of church and state.
And Jews would be nowhere in this country if fundamentalist Christians
had been writing the Constitution. If people – if George Bush is thinking
he'd written the Constitution, we'd just see just how far Jews would have
gotten in American society.
BuzzFlash: It seems the fundamental conflict here historically
is that either we are a nation that embraces diversity and finds our strength
in diversity, or we are a nation that gains strength from uniformity in
belief in a divine God, and that the divine God is guiding our government
forward, as Bush and Scalia believe.
Susan Jacoby: Right.
BuzzFlash: Is George Bush just the fundamentalist Christian
counterpart of Osama bin Laden in terms of believing that he's – and he
let it slip shortly after 9/11 – leading a Crusade? Is the President accountable
to the people of the United States, or only to God? Bush says – maybe
he implies it, or we infer - that he's positioned himself as being somewhat
Christ-like – that he is an instrument of God, and that God is speaking
through him and acting through him. And that's a tremendous difference
from, as you said, Abraham Lincoln, who felt humbled before God.
Susan Jacoby: It was Lincoln who famously said, "I'm
not so concerned about whether God is on our side, as to whether we are
on God's side."
You know, the God is on our side philosophy is a very dangerous philosophy.
One of the great ironies of today is that we've seen fundamentalist Islam.
We've seen those planes being flown into the World Trade Center. We've
seen the destructive results of the feeling that God is endorsing particular
kinds of political acts. And I think it's really important to realize
that this really, truly is not about whether this is a religious nation
or not. America was a Christian people at its founding. America is still
predominantly Christian, though not necessarily predominantly the kind
of Christian George Bush is.
But there's a difference between the people and their individual religious
beliefs, and the government. And that is really important. It is why I
keep harping on it, as they say. Bill Moyers said to me in an interview
– he said, "You've got a bee in your bonnet." I do have a bee
in my bonnet. And the inability to distinguish between people's beliefs
and the government and the leadership of the government is the problem
that the leadership of George W. Bush and the Christian right in Congress
poses today. It's fine to have people believing all of the things they
want to believe. But to be putting those beliefs into governmental policy
is another matter entirely, and they don't understand the distinction.
BuzzFlash: Reading the Constitution, or rereading the
Founding Fathers' philosophical statements, as they deliberated the Constitution,
one of their greatest fears was a national government that would impose
its will, its plurality, its thoughts, its religion on the people. They
expressly wanted to revolt against that very concept, which prevailed
in the old theocratic dynasties of Europe. The irony is that Scalia and
Bush want to restore the pre-revolutionary dynasties of "the old
Europe" to the U.S.
Susan Jacoby: What the Christian right says today is
that the founding fathers were only concerned about religious freedom
from government interference. They weren't concerned about government
freedom from religious interference. That is the big lie of the religious
right today. In fact, the founders were concerned both about religious
freedom from government interference and government freedom from religious
interference. And no government had ever been free from religious interference,
and no minority religion before in America had ever been free from government
interference. They naturally cared about both, because all around them
– and yes, all over old Europe – they saw what the union between government
and religion meant for both religion and government.
BuzzFlash: It was a radical notion. It was a true revolution
at the time, and a form of government that brought strength to the individual,
to secularism, to embracing a diversity of religions, to the freedom that
Bush proclaims but then goes on to try and undercut here at home.
What did secularism – that dramatic revolutionary introduction of the
protection of the individual and individuals’ rights, and the right of
the individual to determine his or her government – what did that bring
to the United States? And what’s the argument for a secular society?
Susan Jacoby: The argument for a secular government is
it enables everything to flourish within a society. But, ironically, one
of the reasons there are so many religions in the United States is that
we did have a secular government right from the beginning. In Europe,
because there was always a union of church and state, being a religious
dissident meant being a political dissident, too. You couldn’t not be,
because religion and government were united.
Now in America, when people were religious dissidents, they just ran off
and founded another church. You could do that in America. And the strength
of secular government is that it allows everything to flourish. It has
probably led to the feeling that all religion is somehow good, whereas
in Europe, they had longer demonstrations, well into the 20th Century
in some countries like Spain, of the damning power of the union between
religion and government. I think we focus on Bush too much, we secularists.
Bush couldn't be possible without a kind of flabbiness of mind in America.
Somehow, we have enjoyed secular government for so long that we don't
have before us a clear vision of the dangers of a society in which government
BuzzFlash: Well, isn't part of that the old conundrum
that it's like herding cats, which is to say when you are secular, even
if you are religious –
Susan Jacoby: Well, lots of religious people believe
in secular government.
BuzzFlash: Yes. So if you are that way, you each have
your own thoughts, it's hard to have a united Democratic Party, for instance,
because it's composed of independent individuals.
Whereas the Republican right wing is moving forward in a very uniform,
kind of hierarchical, strict father model, divinely inspired, undissenting
fashion. It's very hard to counteract because you have different viewpoints
about how to counteract it on the secular side. Because having differing
viewpoints is at the core of an embracing secularism.
Susan Jacoby: That's like what I was saying, that the
people who are intensely focused on one thing, as fundamentalists are,
they are far more disciplined. This is true of a lot of social issues
that are related to but also independent of religion.
Look, Senator Hillary Clinton made a speech last week in
which she said, "We who support abortion rights need to find common
ground with the anti-abortion people on things like preventing pregnancies."
Well, there's really one problem with that, which is the anti-abortion
people – most of them – are just as anti-contraception, so they're not
really just anti-abortion. They're also anti- the kinds of things that
can reduce the need for abortion by preventing pregnancy.
So, you know, when you talk about common ground, liberals tend to be looking
for common ground, but I don't believe the right wing in this country
wants common ground. To liberals and people who believe in secular government
– I say forget about the fundamentalists. Appeal to the 60 or 70% of the
American people who aren't fundamentalists – who may have lots of religious
beliefs but who also believe in secular government. Don't waste time trying
to persuade people who believe that the earth was created in seven days.
You're not going to persuade those people of anything.
BuzzFlash: Let me just ask your perspective on something
slightly outside the framework of the book. Do you think that technology
was supposed to be liberating? I mean, there was a conventional wisdom
that it was going to liberate society. Do you think maybe there's a backlash,
in the sense that 20-25% of the American population wants this fundamentalist
certainty in the face of an overwhelming advancement in technology that's
causing dislocation and confusion? Or is faith – is that kind of faith
just always there?
Susan Jacoby: That kind of faith is always there. But
here's something I feel very, very strongly about. Technology has nothing
to do with liberty and freethinking at all. Technology is just a tool.
And one of the great successes of the Christian right is they employ technology
very effectively. Nobody uses the Internet more effectively than the Christian
Science – real scientific and rational thought – is something quite other
than technology. The Christian right very often is anti- the kind of rationalism
that science is based on. For example, the renewed anti-evolutionist movement
– the new movement against the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution
in the public schools – is because Darwin's theory of evolution, of course,
does not support the theology that the whole world was created in seven
days. But you can use the Internet to promote anti-evolutionism just as
easily as you can use it to promote pro-evolutionism.
So I think technology – really, thinking of technology as anything but
an instrument of whatever ideology people happen to have - is a mistake.
Technology itself is not a liberating force, even though it actually is
a product of rational thought. But anybody can use it.
BuzzFlash: You close your book, and we'll close the interview
with – a quote from King Lear, and then you say: "This is the essence
of the secularist and humanist state, and it must be offered not as a
defensive response to the religiously correct, but as a robust creed worthy
of the world’s first secular government. American secularists have trouble
deciding what to call themselves today, in part because the term has been
denigrated by the right and in part because identifying oneself as a secular
humanist...has a vaguely bureaucratic ring. It is time to revive the evocative
and honorable freethinker, with its insistence that Americans
think for themselves instead of relying on received opinion. The combination
of free and thought embodies every ideal that secularists
still hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven
but on the best human hopes for a more just earth."
Susan Jacoby: That’s a really good sentence. I like it!
BuzzFlash: Yes, yes – I wonder who wrote it? But you
end by emphasizing the deeds we accomplish on earth. The original founders
of the nation said people elect the government, and then the government
is responsible to the people. Otherwise, they elect a new government.
That was a revolutionary thought. And have we reached a point where deeds
are divorced from faith?
With Bush, it seems that every day we wake up, and no matter what he does,
there's a renewed faith in him as a person. His deeds are separated from
his faith, from his promises, from his speeches, and he's not held accountable
for his deeds. He's held accountable for what he says is his faith and
his optimism. There is a disconnect – we've lost accountability at least
for the national government in terms of its deeds, and the deeds become
separated from the words and the administration is judged by its words,
not its actions.
Susan Jacoby: Well, I would say as a freethinker and
as a secularist – I would say the ideal response to that definitely comes
from the Bible, and it is, "By their fruits, ye shall know them."
BuzzFlash: Well, with that I want to thank you, Susan.
It's a wonderful book and definitely full of insightful historical background
on why we are a secular nation and what strength that brings to the great
democracy that we are, and that we hopefully will be once again.
Susan Jacoby: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
Center for Inquiry - Metro New York