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Society and Community:
America's Freethinking Tradition
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The debate over just what the founding fathers meant about separation of church and state is an ongoing one, both in the public sphere and in the Supreme Court.

In 2004, it is impossible to imagine an avowed atheist or agnostic winning the American presidency or even being nominated...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. — Susan Jacoby, FREETHINKERS

Merriam Webster's dictionary defines a freethinker as "one that forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially: one who doubts or denies religious dogma." Susan Jacoby and other scholars point out that secularism and freethinking have always had a crucial role in American politics and culture. Take a look back at some of those influential thinkers below.

Tom Paine

Today there is much debate over the religious beliefs of our nation's founding fathers. Debate also rages over meaning of the religion clauses of the United States Constitution and the interpretation of Thomas Jefferson's phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. What is not up for debate, however. is the profound influence Thomas Paine had on the founding fathers and founding doctrines of the United States. A simple search at the Library of Congress brings up a wealth of personal correspondence between Paine and Jefferson, Washington and others. In his immensely successful pamphlet "Common Sense," published in 1776, Paine argued in print that colonies had outgrown any need for English domination and should be given independence. This and Paine's subsequent essays called "The Crisis" are seminal documents of the American Revolution.

Raised a Quaker in England, Paine was well used to conflicts with the religions and political powers of the day. His thinking on the matter of religion and politics evolved further during a return to England when he wrote THE RIGHTS OF MAN, defending the French Revolution, and later THE AGE OF REASON, both of which earned him the enmity of the British government. His notion that there are certain "natural rights" common to all men was greatly influenced by and in turn influenced the Enlightenment philosophy known as "deism." Deists held that nature itself sufficiently demonstrated the existence of God, making formal, established religion unnecessary. Deists also scorned claims of supernatural revelation. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were all greatly influenced by deism.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them. — Thomas Paine, THE AGE OF REASON

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It is common to think of the 19th century as the great age of religion. It is true that many social movements in that era had a decided religious bent. For example, some early urban educational movements functioned also to "Americanize" an influx of Catholic immigrants. However, the mid-19th century was also the heyday of less traditional faiths like Spiritualism and frequent challenges to religious orthodoxy.

Several social movements brought their adherents into conflict with established religious beliefs, chief among them the abolitionists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's determination to advance the cause of equal rights for women was sparked by disregard of women by the abolition movement. One of the most famous women in America, Stanton turned her attention to the effects of established religion on perceptions of women.

In the late 1880s, Stanton began a thorough study of the Bible with the assistance of a committee of academic and church women. Stanton concerned herself only with those parts of the Bible that mentioned women or that she believed had erroneously omitted women. The results were published as THE WOMEN'S BIBLE, reproduced a section of Biblical text at the top of each page followed by a reinterpretation or commentary which placed greater emphasis on individual development and less on institutional subordination. Although THE WOMAN'S BIBLE was received with disdain in some sectors, it was a best-seller.

These familiar texts are quoted by clergymen in their pulpits, by statesmen in the halls of legislation, by lawyers in the courts, and are echoed by the press of all civilized nations, and accepted by woman herself as "The Word of God." So perverted is the religious element in her nature, that with faith and works she is the chief support of the church and clergy; the very powers that make her emancipation impossible. When, in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. When they protested against their unequal position in the church, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Preface to THE WOMAN'S BIBLE

Henry Ingersoll Cartoon

Today the name of Robert Green Ingersoll is likely unfamiliar to most Americans, yet during his lifetime he was acclaimed as one of the greatest public speakers of his age. His printed speeches and debates were best-sellers, even though his nickname was decidedly irreligious.

Ingersoll was the son of a Congregational minister who became a court lawyer and served in the Union army during the Civil War. Ingersoll questioned the tenets of Christian belief in such lectures as "The Gods" (1872), "Some Mistakes of Moses" (1879), "Why I Am an Agnostic" (1896), and "Superstition" (1898), drawing large audiences through his eloquence and irreverent wit and provoking denunciations from the orthodox. Such was Ingersoll's fame that the prominent religious thinkers clamored for public debate. The NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW published a series of exchanges between Ingersoll and such prominent Victorians and Prime Minister William Gladstone and Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster.

Nature has furnished every human being with a light more or less brilliant, more or less powerful. That light is Reason; and he who blows that light out, is in utter darkness. It has been the business of the church for centuries to extinguish the lamp of the mind. — Robert Ingersoll

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan

Since its first publication in 1859, Charles Darwin's ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION has been a cause of religious contention. In 1925, the theories of Darwin became the centerpiece in a trial that the press of the day defined as a showdown between modernism and tradition, between God and secularism.

What became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial was designed from the outset to be a test case. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher was charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. On the side of the prosecution was one of the country's most famous politicians and orators, William Jennings Bryan. On the side of the defense was the ACLU and the nation's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

The opening statements laid out the battle lines. Bryan claimed that "if evolution wins, Christianity goes." Darrow argued, "Scopes isn't on trial; civilization is on trial... [The prosecution is] opening the doors for a reign of bigotry equal to anything in the Middle Ages." Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan over Biblical theology became a classic in confrontation. Darrow was portrayed in most of the media of having easily bested Bryan. Scopes was found guilty and the case appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Today, the teaching of evolution remains under legal debate in several American states.

JFK bumper sticker

When John F. Kennedy received the Democratic nomination for President in 1960, discussion began immediately about "the religious question." Some feared that Kennedy, as a Catholic, would be unduly influenced by his church and its leadership in Rome. In choosing to deal with the matter, Kennedy did not focus on the fact that he had faith, but on the American tradition of tolerance and equality between people of all faiths as well as those with none. Pundits watching the role of religion in the 2004 election have remarked on how all the candidates have called attention to the role of faith and prayer in their lives.

Additional Sources: THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES; American Memory, the Library of Congress;

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