What is a Public Intellectual?
That pestering, provocative, biggest critic of every political, social, and cultural issue or individual who some cannot stand because their free conscience inevitably leads them to logically question and reason with public discourses are some descriptions of a Public Intellectual. On the other hand, they can be the most influential beings whose unique drive to gain knowledge and educate their fellow beings leave a mark in American history. Although public intellectuals often do not hold a place in power such as a politician, CEO, or a Pope, they do sway society through preaching their impactful views on critical public issues. One of the most prominent public intellectuals well known to the atheist and secularist community, Susan Jacoby, is an independent scholar whose interest in intellectual history has generated eleven books and sparked controversy within modern America’s most significant problems. She is perhaps best known for “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” where she emphasizes the important role of secularism in current political and social events. Jacoby also argues that intellectualism is declining in our nation in her New York Times Best-Selling book, “Age of American Unreason”. She also revives the history of secularism and one of its forgotten advocates Robert Ingersoll in her book “The Great Agnostic” (Jacoby). As a freethinker and Intellectual, she also gives her insight on a variety of social justice issues while weaving religious agendas and the decline in American intellectualism as a source to the impediments of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, international rights, poverty and equality for people of color.
Susan Jacoby was raised in a Roman Catholic home where her mother was an Irish catholic and her father was a convert catholic. Although Jacoby knew her father was a convert, it wasn’t until the age of 24 that she discovered her father converted from Judaism. The news disheartened Jacoby because her family had kept her father’s Jewish origins hidden because of shame and the impetus the anti-semitic movement had on the environment while she was growing up in 1950s Michigan. The new found knowledge of her Jewish ancestry combined with intellectual curiosity would drive Jacoby to investigate her family roots. During her investigations, she discovered that she had three generations of Jacoby’s who migrated from Nazi Germany to America, and, in effort to achieve assimilation in the new world, her ancestors were forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. Through Jacoby’s search for the truth of her father’s family origins, she committed to studying both Catholicism and Judaism in her post-undergraduate endeavors. After her diligent study of both religions, Susan Jacoby grew very skeptical about Catholicism and Judaism which contributed to her ultimate conversion to atheism.
After graduating from Michigan State in 1965, Jacoby began her career as a reporter for The Washington Post. Between 1969 and 1972, she covered stories in Moscow and released her first book “Moscow Conversions”. After her religious studies of conversions and its correlation to political and social events, she now focuses on today’s heavily debated topics in America concerning religious freedom versus freedom from religion and how mixing religion and politics are just as bad as mixing light and dark liquor. She argues that it is proven through examining The Framers intent of leaving “God” out of America’s constitution that religion has neither place in government nor decisions in public policy.
“Surveys conducted by the National Constitution Center show that while Americans hold the Constitution in high esteem, they know relatively little about the nation’s founding document. … 42% think the Constitution explicitly states that ‘the first language of the United States is English’; and 25% believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion.”
When Susan Jacoby engages in debates over the role of religion in America, she cynically asks the question of which Christian sects her opponent is talking about. She discusses the various sects that impact America from Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity which maintains that every word in the Bible is literally true and mainstream to literal Protestantism which regards the Bible as a man-written metaphor for spiritual truth. She discusses conservative Catholicism such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops which considers contraception a mortal sin and women in the priesthood a heresy. She references the faith of the majority of the late American Catholics and Nuns who reject the notion that a select group of old men can claim exclusive divine authority. Jacoby also notes the Christian Politicians who today use the phrase “Judeo-Christian Heritage” at every opportunity possible. This is precisely the problem with religion and politics that she notes the founders saw at a time when America was not only almost entirely Christian but almost entirely protestant. Although the Constitution does not forbid religious faiths from participating in the private sector, the recurrent reinterpretation of the Biblical message under the broad umbrella of Christianity has diluted its original message and illegitimatized its participation in political debate. Jacoby is adamant in expressing her concerns that politicians continue to reference a Biblical text to persuade others in debate similar to Peter Breinart’s claim of the New Republic, that, “It’s fine if religion influences your moral values. But, when you make public arguments, you have to ground them—as much as possible—in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise, you can’t persuade other people, and they can’t persuade you.”(Mack)Through Jacoby’s extensive historical research, she found that at the time the Constitution was written, every state except Rhode Island and Virginia had laws that privileged one religion over another. The commonwealth of Rhode Island was founded by religious decedents who framed the puritan theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at a time in the mid-17
Through Jacoby’s extensive historical research, she found that at the time the Constitution was written, every state except Rhode Island and Virginia had laws that privileged one religion over another. The commonwealth of Rhode Island was founded by religious decedents who framed the puritan theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at a time in the mid-17th century when Massachusetts was executing Quakers. Also, during the time of the revolution, Protestants could run for office in Massachusetts but not Jews or Catholics. The Framers of the Constitution took a look at this sectarian conflict, which had been imported from the old world, and decided that the National government was going to set a very different example for the States. In response, the Framers left God out of the Constitution entirely, which was a decision that was debated thoroughly at every State Ratifying Convention. Susan Jacoby argues that the purpose of omitting “God” from the constitution and prohibiting the kinds of religious tests for public office that were existent within States was to protect government from undue religious institutional influence.
However, Jacoby also states that the purpose of the first amendment was meant to protect religion from government. She claims the Christian-right today wants to erase the first half of that equation from American history, and ever since the day the religious-right lost its first battle over the God-less constitution, they’ve never gotten over it. But Jacoby notes that the Separation of Church and State emphatically does not mean the exclusion of voices of faiths from the public square. What it does mean, she claims, is that religious faith is not a sufficient argument to justify any other policy.
In Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book, “The Age of American Unreason: Dumbing Down and the future of Democracy” she illustrates the consequences of having a growing number of uninformed and uneducated Americans. Her book begins with Thomas Jefferson’s quote from 1819, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be”. Jacoby found through her research and surveys that:
“Two-thirds of Americans cannot name the three branches of government or come up with the name of a single Court justice. … Americans who get their news primarily from television rather than newspapers know much less about the judicial system than newspaper readers. Two-thirds of newspaper readers, but only 40 percent of television watchers know that the primary mission of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution.”
In relation to America’s issues today such as LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, international rights, religious freedom, poverty, and equality for people of color, Susan Jacoby promotes the use of humanism, logistics, and scientific evidence to solve these social injustices rather than attempting to reason with the interpretations of the bible. However, America is facing a Trump administration filled with many far-right Christians which is concerning to many citizens regarding the future of our education system, economy, civil rights, immigration, and preservation of our environment.
For example, Trump’s Immigration ban- also known as the “Muslim-ban”, precisely validates why Susan Jacoby stresses the importance of maintaining a secular government. Trump and his administration are proving to show their favoritism towards Evangelical Christianity over other religions which is exemplified during Trump’s interview with CBN when he stated that, “Christian refugees are a priority over Muslim refugees” and also that “Evangelical Christians will be very happy with the supreme court nominee”. Another far-right Christian led legislative proposal is to overturn Roe v. Wade and defund planned parenthood to stop the “un-godly” acts of using contraceptives and females from having an abortion. The attack on the LGBTQ community has also begun as Evangelical Christians in the congress are trying to pass the First Amendment Defense Act, resembling Vice President Mike Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act he passed as governor in the of Indiana, which would legalize discrimination against LGBT citizens. Additionally, we have just confirmed the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, who does not believe in public education, is not supportive of LGBT rights, and supports creationism to be taught in all schools. Jacoby has examined that when religion begins to control the state, rather than be separate from it, the government falls apart. Jacoby points this out through the patterns in our history in her book “Strange Gods” when the Roman Empire under Constantine became a fiasco causing persecution of Jews and Muslims involving forced conversions enforced by the newly entitled Roman Catholic Church. This same scenario would repeat itself in the Spanish inquisition; not to mention Protestant groups attempting a theocracy with witch hunts in the 17th Century.
Furthermore, many Americans who oppose President Donald Trump are still trying to figure out how he got elected. Of course, Trump’s embrace of ignorance and his willingness to make stupidity a trademark of his identity points to a number of forces in American life that are not mentioned in the media when Trump is denounced as illiterate. As Susan Jacoby has argued, these would include:
“fundamentalist forms of religion in current America … the abysmal level of public education … the widespread inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience … the dumbing-down of the media and politics [and] the consequences of a culture of serious reading being replaced by a rapid-fire, short-attention-span-provoking, over-stimulating, largely visual, information-spewing environment.”
Richard Hofstadter once cautioned that anti-intellectualism was a robust nuance of American life. Many argue that not only was he correct, but he would be stunned to learn that today anti-intellectualism has gone mainstream and not only has been normalized but authenticated by right-wing extremists governing the Republican Party, which Trump willingly embraces. For Trump, emotion overcomes reason, understanding, and thoughtfulness. Fear mongering now replaces any practical concept of discourse.