Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

4.4 17
by Susan Jacoby

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"Jacoby accomplishes her task with clarity, thoroughness, and an engaging passion."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review

At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers offers a powerful defense of the secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on

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"Jacoby accomplishes her task with clarity, thoroughness, and an engaging passion."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review

At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers offers a powerful defense of the secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on the authority of religion but on the bedrock of human reason. In impassioned, elegant prose, celebrated author Susan Jacoby traces more than two hundred years of secularist activism, beginning with the fierce debate over the omission of God from the Constitution. Moving from nineteenth-century abolitionism and suffragism through the twentieth century's civil liberties, civil rights, and feminist movements, Freethinkers illuminates the neglected achievements of secularists who, allied with tolerant believers, have led the battle for reform in the past and today.

Rich with such iconic figures as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, and the once-famous Robert Green Ingersoll, Freethinkers restores to history the passionate humanists who struggled against those who would undermine the combination of secular government and religious liberty that is the glory of the American system.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times

Ardent and insightful.
The Washington Post Book World

In lucid and witty prose, Jacoby has uncovered the hidden history of secular America.
Publishers Weekly
Is America really one nation under God? Not according to Pulitzer Prize-finalist Jacoby (Wild Justice, etc.), who argues that it is America's secularist "freethinkers" who formed the bedrock upon which our nation was built. Jacoby contends that it's one of "the great unresolved paradoxes" that religion occupies such an important place in a nation founded on separation of church and state. She traces the role of "freethinkers," a term first coined in the 17th century, in the formation of America from the writing of the Constitution to some of our greatest social revolutions, including abolition, feminism, labor, civil rights and the dawning of Darwin's theory of evolution. Jacoby has clearly spent much time in the library, and the result is an impressive literary achievement filled with an array of both major and minor figures from American history, like revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Robert Green Ingersoll. Her historical work is further flanked by current examples-the Bush White House in an introduction and the views of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in a final chapter-that crystallize her concern over secularism's waning influence. Unfortunately, Jacoby's immense research is also the book's Achilles heel. Her core mission to impress upon readers the historical struggle of freethinkers against the religious establishment is at times overwhelmed by the sheer volume of characters and vignettes she offers, many of which, frankly, are not very compelling. Still, Jacoby has done yeoman's work in crafting her message that the values of America's freethinkers belong "at the center, not in the margins" of American life. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Accomplished author and journalist Jacoby (Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge) turns her attention to the history of American free thought. Starting with the deism of America's Founding Fathers, she masterfully chronicles 200 years of religious doubt in the United States, including in her discussion many historical figures overlooked as freethinkers, such as Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Green Ingersol. Also significant is Jacoby's excellent overview of freethinkers' involvement in such issues as abolition, feminism, civil rights, and the separation of church and state. Despite her painstaking research, those familiar with the Founding Fathers will be surprised at her omission of Benjamin Franklin. As an admitted deist and trusted colleague of Jefferson (e.g., see Albert Post's Popular Freethought in America or Walter Isaacon's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life), he would have made Jacoby's chapter on the Founding Fathers much stronger were he included. Despite this small criticism, however, this is a much needed addition to the literature that restores many freethinkers to their rightful place in American history. Highly recommended for academic libraries or larger public libraries.-Brad S. Matthies, Butler Univ. Lib., Indianapolis Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A look at the genius, madness, cruelty and sensitivity of an acting legend. Writing a biography of stage-film-TV actress Stanley, author Krampner (The Man in the Shadows, 1997) faced a daunting challenge. Stanley fabricated accounts of her life, leaving the author to sort matters out. (She was not born in Texas, as she always insisted, but in Albuquerque.) Some theater artists found her luminous, while others found her behavior indulgent and enraging. Katharine Hepburn walked out of a nascent project when Stanley, a proponent of Method acting, started writhing on the floor; another actor chased her around backstage with an axe. Krampner plies these storm-tossed waters by hewing to a thoroughly documented account of the actress's career. Stanley turned to acting to receive the approval her Southern Baptist father withheld. After brief work in regional theater, she set out for New York, where, during the 1950s, her acting early on drew raves. Her performances in Picnic and Bus Stop became legendary. So did her behavior. She chugged alcohol to the point that actor Kevin McCarthy insisted she'd just thrown up before she kissed him onstage in The Cherry Orchard. She often cancelled performances and usually wangled out of contracts soon after her plays had opened. She fared better on TV in brilliant one-night performances during the golden age of live drama. She worked on five films, most notably The Goddess and Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Her appearance in The Cherry Orchard in London in 1965, directed by Lee Strasberg, went down as one of the greatest disasters in modern theater history, effectively ending her stage career. She was, Krampner concludes, a Mona Lisa-astounding, but unknowable. Asteadily turning kaleidoscope of vivid, unsettling images.

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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5.71(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Freethinkers:

In 2004, it is impossible to imagine an avowed atheist or agnostic winning the American presidency or even being nominated. Ronald Reagan, whose record of religious observance during his Hollywood years was spotty at best, started turning up regularly at church services as soon as he was elected governor of California. Although Democrats have been more careful to separate private religious views from policy-making, Jimmy Carter, the first born-again Christian in the White House, and Bill Clinton, the first president to publicly ask God’s forgiveness for adultery, did their part to blur the distinction between personal faith and civic responsibility. In the Bush White House, where Cabinet meetings routinely begin with a prayer, the institutionalization of religion has reached an apotheosis. Today, it is possible that Lincoln, who refused to join a church even though his advisers argued that some affiliation would help his election chances, could well be unacceptable as a major party presidential candidate.

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