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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby

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Pulitzer Prize finalist Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism is an interesting read that is filled with a wealth of examples of the attitudes of prominent Americans towards secularism in government. This includes, but is very much not limited to Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Hugo Black. This book contains many pleasing examples of the Establishment Clause being upheld and several chilling examples of it being breached.

I learned many interesting things from this book. Did you know that Patrick Henry sponsored a Bill where Virginians would be taxed to directly support teachers of the Christian faith? Did you know that Abraham Lincoln refused to join a church, despite persistence from his political advisors? Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. publically expressed that he would rather see the Bill of Rights taught in schools than the lessons of the Bible? Did you know that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was adamantly in favor of preserving the separation of church and state? I found the chapters on Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were especially interesting and informative. The author argues that despite the claims from many advocates of bridging church and state, President Lincoln was definitely not a supporter of their cause.

I also appreciated how the author cited some dangerous examples in modern era politics including the views of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who publically attacks separation of church and state, and George W. Bush. She mentioned many facts on our current President that I already knew (such as the establishment of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives) and several that I did not know (such as his started tradition of beginning every cabinet meeting by leading his advisors in prayer.)

One criticism I have is that the books author has ostensible liberal political views. There was a lot of discussion on Emma Goldwin (an outspoken Communist in the United States), Roger Nash Baldwin (the founder of the ACLU) and too much implicit praise of Feminism for my tastes. Moreover, there was unfortunately no mention of Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, this did not eclipse my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, this book is a great source of facts and historical anecdotes on the issue of church and state and fairly pleasurable to read. I recommend it to all who are interested in this topic.

Edited by DarkWaters
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