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Bill Moyers interviews Susan Jacoby on NOW. 5.14.2004
MOYERS: Susan Jacoby has a problem with all this talk about God in politics.
She comes from a long American tradition of freethinkers and that's the title of her new book, her fifth. She's director of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that works to promote science and reason.
We met the other day for a conversation about religion and politics.
MOYERS: You express a deep concern and fear that since 9/11 patriotism and religion have become inseparable in this country. Why is that of alarm to you?
JACOBY: It's of alarm first of all because it's such a very dangerous thing when patriotism and religion become equated. So often the kind of religion which is melded with patriotism and not only in America we see the horrifying implications of it throughout history becomes nationalism and militarism and a complete intolerance for any other point of view. I think it's dangerous to÷ the God is on our side thing is extremely dangerous. And I'd like to go back to something to the Civil War.
JACOBY: Lincoln spoke a lot about God. But in a somewhat different way. His second inaugural address which is so famous and in many occasions before that he pointed out the real problem in saying that you consult God for your instructions about how to conduct war or any form of policy.
Which is that, "Northerners and southerners prayed to the same god," he said. But the northern God by that point said, "Slavery was bad. You must go to war to eliminate it." And the southern God who spoke to southerners at that time said, "The Bible supports slavery. God and slavery are one."
Isn't that a perfect example of the danger of looking to the divine to solve human problems? People's God speaks to them in different voices. The Civil War is the perfect example of it.
MOYERS: Abraham Lincoln belonged to no church. He refused in fact to join a church during his first campaign even though his political advisors urged him to do so because it would help his election.
Do you think Abraham Lincoln could be elected president today?
JACOBY: No. I don't think he would be nominated today. I don't think anyone who doesn't belong÷ I don't think an atheist who called himself an atheist could be nominated. But I also think it would be quite impossible anyone who didn't belong to a church would be immediately suspect today.
Look what happens even when Howard Dean was tarred with the dreaded S-word for secular and the issue of whether he was too secular a person to be nominated was raised. Instead of saying, which I would like to see a candidate say, instead of saying my religious beliefs are my own. Which Jefferson and Washington and Madison and the early president said and Lincoln too. Instead of saying my religious beliefs are my own but I believe, "Yes in secular government." And in an absolutely separation of church and state.
He suddenly discovered, "Well I pray ever day. And I'm trying to become more comfortable" he said "with discussing my religion in public." Why should we be expecting a candidate to be, quote, "comfortable with discussing his religion in public?"
MOYERS: Why should you be so concerned? You're free to think as you think, to believe as you believe, to be the atheist you are. No one is trying to take that away from you or dampen your belief system, are they? Is that÷
JACOBY: Well, it÷
MOYERS: Aren't you protected by the Constitution and the First Amendment?
JACOBY: I am protected. I can believe what I want. But there is another issue. It's not merely one of protection of individual belief. It's also the other side of it, the side of it that's the constitutional, the no religious tests. Supreme power to "We the people." Which is the protection of government from religion.
And that's where I think religion is well protected from government in this country now as it always has been. Where we're falling down as a result of developments and the great rise of the religious right during the past 30 years is in the protection of government from religion.
MOYERS: What leads you to conclude that?
JACOBY: A myriad of actions on every front. The open espousal of faith based programs, the appointment of judges who have expressed open contempt for separation of church and state. Judge Pryor the former Alabama Attorney General who was appointed by Bush when Congress was in recess to bypass the Senate confirmation process.
I just came across a speech he made in defense at a rally in favor of Judge Moore. He of the two-ton Ten Commandments monument. And Judge Prior said÷ he said in this speech, he said, "Now is the time for all Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to take back our country and our courts."
I think that the appointment of such a judge which President Bush went out of his way to do. I think that statement should disqualify anyone for a federal judgeship. No federal judge should be saying, "Now is the time for Christians to take back our country and our courts."
Our country and our courts were never Christians. They never were Christian. They aren't Christians to take back because they were never intended to be Christian. So the kinds of judges that President Bush has appointed and would continue to appoint certainly if he's reelected. Are judges who have contempt for separation of church and state.
And Bush has also meant in many other government programs, for instance, the towing of the line on abortion. Bush's decision on stem cell research which most leading scientists believe has already really hampered American research. Because they regard research on embryos as a form of abortion.
It is having personal religious faith, his, determine public policy in a way that no president has ever done before.
MOYERS: How do you÷
JACOBY: Including Ronald Reagan.
MOYERS: Who was a man of÷
JACOBY: Who was conservative but not nearly as conservative on religious issues.
MOYERS: Well the father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater was very much opposed.
JACOBY: Very much opposed to it. He made a speech which I think I can't even quote on public television on the floor of the Senate in 1980 basically saying, "If one more blankety-blank preacher tries to tell me how I should vote and if God is going to be÷ to strike me dead if I don't vote this way I've had enough of it." I'm putting this in more polite language than Barry. You can say anything on the floor of the Senate.
MOYERS: And they do. And then they÷
JACOBY: And they had a Federal Communications Commission doesn't censure it.
MOYERS: And then they erase it the next day on the Congressional Record. How do you explain that I'm going to get a lot of vitriolic mail because of what you're saying on this show?
JACOBY: I think certainly, certainly judging from my email, people send me email praising what I have to say and denigrating what I have to say. The praise is always more measured than the denigration which of course tells me I'm going to hell. And it's really in a rage that I don't share their point of view and the point of view is being presented. Even though their point of view is being presented on hundreds of radio shows÷
MOYERS: Oh yeah.
JACOBY: ÷even as we speak right now. It's not as though the point of view of the Christian right is not well presented. We do not dominate. We secularists do not dominate the public square.
I think one of the brilliant successes of the right wing in which the press has been a sort of ignorant collaborator is appropriating the word religion.
What do we mean when we say that Americans are religious?
Those Catholics for instance who disagree with their church's teachings say on abortion and on gay rights they're just a different kind of Catholic from those who share the Pope's views. Just as Evangelical Baptists like Jimmy Carter, who slapped at the fundamentalist Georgia State Superintendent of Schools who wanted to remove the word evolution in the year 2004 from their biology textbooks. He's as much a devout, religious person as is George W. Bush. But there are different kinds of religion. So religious doesn't mean, doesn't mean you have to follow the kind of religion which is being espoused by our government today.
MOYERS: You write in praise of secularism. What exactly are you praising?
JACOBY: I'm praising a belief system which particularly in relation to public affairs, but I have to say also in relation to personal conduct, says we have an obligation to create a decent society, to behave decently to one another, not because we're afraid that we're going to hell of we're hopeful that we're going to heaven. But because this is what it means to be human. This is what we owe each other as decent human beings. Not because we think that some divinity is going to punish us if we're not good.
And I think the idea that the people have to have religion and that governments have to have religion to be good, this is what I detest. And I think that's the difference and I think, you know, someone once asked me, "Well if you don't believe in God, what's to stop you from killing someone?" No one had ever asked me that before.
I said, "Well, honestly, it never occurred to me to kill anyone." And not because I think God is going to punish me or even because I think I'm going to go to jail. I don't want to.
MOYERS: There are these people who say that we can't derive a moral standard without reference to an absolute standard. And my question then is, "Where does one draw, who is not a believer in an absolute or transcendental God, where does one draw one's ethical imperatives?
JACOBY: Out of respect for common humanity. Out of respect for our own humanity. Out of respect for what it means to have evolved into who we are over the years. Out of, good heavens, the knowledge that the rights we want for ourselves we have to grant to others.
Robert Ingersoll put it beautifully. Someone a reporter asked him that same question in the 1870s. He said, "Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know of nothing better than good. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. I know of nothing juster than just."
I feel that way. But justice on Earth doesn't require a thought of heaven. And I also feel that we can only resolve our social conflicts, our political conflicts by reference to ourselves.
MOYERS: And you mean by÷ in yourselves. You mean in the sanctioned system we have set up to arrive at some resolution of our differences?
MOYERS: The courts of politics.
JACOBY: Yes. And we will never do it by appealing to God because God is such a different thing to so many different people.
MOYERS: You call the book FREETHINKERS. Tell our audience why that title?
JACOBY: Freethinker, a great word. It first appears at the end of the 17th century. And what it meant was someone who opposed orthodox religion, ecclesiastical hierarchy. Freethinkers. And it grew into a real social movement in the next two centuries.
Freethinkers were not necessarily atheists or agnostics although they were always called that. Isn't it funny that religious fanatics always all anyone whose religion is different from theirs an atheist.
MOYERS: And who are your heroes of the free thinking movement?
JACOBY: Thomas Paine. Paine because he put in popular language religious doubt. He also wasn't an atheist although he was always called that.
MOYERS: Theodore Roosevelt called Tom Paine a filthy little atheist.
JACOBY: He did. And yet Paine even says that he believes in God. What he hates are church hierarchies. He hates the authority of ministers. He hates the authority of priests.
He hates the authority of bishops. He certainly hated the authority of the Pope. All established church hierarchies he hated. And that side of free thought is constant whether they believe in God or not. And Baptists. Speaking of Baptists, as you're a Baptist.
Another thing that would surprise at least a lot of the conservative wing of Baptists today is that Baptists were, along with freethinkers, they united to ratify the Constitution as it was and earlier to write Virginia's Religious Freedom Act which is the first state to totally separate Church and State. And they did that of course then because they were a minority religion. And they deeply believed that religion was no business of government at all.
They united with freethinkers who were more concerned that government not be the business of religion. But here were compromise, here were flexible people. They came to the same position which is Church and State should be completely separate from different perspectives.
MOYERS: When you use the word, the phrase, "the separation of Church and State," what do you think of?
JACOBY: I think of it as a great and mighty and nourishing river. That's what I think of it as, a river divides just as a wall. But it divides in a life giving way. And I think of it÷
MOYERS: How so?
JACOBY: And I think of it that way because it nourishes, it has nourished both religion and government. Certainly the plethora of religions we have, the vitality of religious life is due to the fact that the government was never able to interfere with religion. Not really of course there are many exceptions but there was always this constitution saying no you can't do it. And certainly government, our government, a secular government is the great gift we gave to the world at a time when it didn't have it.
And seeing high government officials including the President and including Justice Scalia, including a lot of other people just naming the two top names very influential denying these life giving properties of separation of church and state. Saying it's not even true, ignoring the fact that the Constitution specifically grants authority to we the people. And pretending that our government was founded as a Christian government.
Do you know I don't mention this in the book but in 1797 the Barbary Pirates were attacking American ships. And so, you know, President John Adams and signed in the Senate and the House unanimously signed a treaty that was arranged, the Treaty of Tripoli. And they were of course Muslims at the time in Tripoli. And one of the provisions of this treaty which was published in American newspapers and again ratified with no comment in the Senate, in the House and signed by President Adams, was that the United States is in no way a Christian nation is the exact statement.
Was in no way founded as a Christian nation. Therefore we have nothing. I'm paraphrasing now. We have nothing against they called the Muselmen then. They were reassuring the Barbary states that America, which was not founded as a Christian country, as the document states, was not going to interfere with their religious practices.
And this provision occasioned basically no comment. If the separation of church and state was not taken for granted even that early in the Republic by both the religious and the nonreligious in America why imagine the fight we would have over some agreement. You know let's say we signed a test ban treaty today and it said something like, "We are not a Christian nation?"
MOYERS: This woman has a bee in her bonnet as we used to say down south. What is it that motivated you to write this book?
JACOBY: I do have a bee in my bonnet as you so nicely put it. I actually, This book started with another book. Several years ago I wrote a memoir titled HALF-JEW and it was really about my father who pretended he wasn't a Jew and was a Roman Catholic convert his whole life.
And it started me thinking I would speak in temples. And they would ask me you know, "What are you now? Wanting to hear that I had returned to the Judaism of my father's forbears, which he of course never knew either.
And I would say in a way unhappily because I knew these nice people who had come to temples to listen to me would be disappointed. I would say I'm an atheist. And there would be a gasp of surprise.
And someone said in one audience, "You mean you believe in nothing." And I started thinking about that. I said, "Well no. I don't believe in nothing." And I started thinking about that. Well, no. I don't believe in nothing. There are a lot of things I believe in. I believe that our obligation is to make life better because it's our obligation to each other as human beings. Not in relation to eternal rewards and infernal punishments.
And then I started thinking, "This is what a lot of the founders of this country believed." And why is the secular tradition in America which as powerful as the religious tradition. Why is it so denigrated today? Why has it been so lost at least in this period of our history? That really started my writing this book.
MOYERS: The book is FREETHINKERS, A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM, the author is Susan Jacoby. Thank you very much for being with us on NOW.
JACOBY: Thank you. It's really been a pleasure.