It’s a hotly-contested debate. With the idea of “intelligent design” (a Christian-gone-Deist form of Creationism) finding it’s way (controversially) into classrooms, one would be hard-pressed to think that something like the Scopes Monkey Trial ever occurred. And yet, America in the new millennium finds itself hosting two divided parties: one that subscribes to absolute separation of church and state, and another that either wants religion to play a prominent role in government (something Pat Robertson and Al Qaeda have in common) or think that it’s more or less impossible for religion to stay out of government. Those of the latter camp will often dredge of the idea of America being a “Christian nation” (it’s not), with Christian Founding Fathers (many of them were not, in fact, Christian), and with a political capital supposedly chock-full of purposeful religious symbolism (yes and no).
In Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby argues vehemently from the former camp, insisting that the founding fathers (Jefferson, especially) specifically guarded religion from government and vice versa, having finally gained their political independence from a country (a continent, even) with a religion deeply entrenched in government. Jacoby cites much of Jefferson’s correspondence, his drafting of an non-religious state constitution in Virginia, and the purposeful omission of theistic references in the Constitution. While I was afraid that Freethinkers would read like a polemic, the book is actually pretty evenhanded, though clearly with an agenda. One thing that she mentions (and that I didn’t know), is that both deist/atheists/freethinkers and evangelical Christians wanted a religiously-neutral constitution (and a legal separation of secular and ecumenical powers) so as to prevent any one denomination, such as the Congregationalists, from becoming the official religion.
But Freethinkers isn’t just about the 18th century. It covers a fair amount of history, and covers it with a near-ponderous amount of detail. That, I think, is Jacoby’s big failing: much of the writing is anecdotal, which I like (Bill Bryson’s Made in America is a wonderful example of this), but her writing is a little too dry and prosaic to keep me interested throughout some long digression about some tangential story. Also, she tries a bit too hard to hammer her point home: I’m smart enough that I don’t need to be reminded after each anecdote how and why this relates to the topic at hand. This isn’t an academic essay: it’s a book, and the writing needs to flow smoothly and read easily, or the impact of the argument will be lost in a maelstrom of superfluous verbiage.
All in all, Jacoby’s done an excellent job in researching her book and constructing a cogent argument. I think it’s an informative read, but if heavy-handed writing is an impediment to you, then you should probably steer clear of this book.