Godless: Fighting for the Secular Soul of America

Matthew Murray

Summer Institute Reflective Paper, 2009



Everyone knows that religious freedom was on the minds of the founders of the United States, but the battle over the place of God in the US is alive and well even today.  A month ago a “friend” on Facebook invited me to join the cause “Fight to keep GOD in America.”  The cause’s two stated positions were brief: 1) “America needs God” and 2) “Without God we perish.”   I’m a secular fellow myself, and so didn’t join, but what really amazed me is the fact that such a cause exists and has more than 77,000 members!   As far as I can tell, God is doing quite well in American life and culture and isn’t going away anytime soon – so why the fight?


Current issues such as “the battle for God” have been on my mind a lot this week during the 2009 American History Teachers Summer Institute.  I’ve been struck more than once this week by the relevance of the topic of reform, reformers and reformatories to current issues.  On Monday the issues of prisoner abuse mentioned in Professor Gilfoyle’s presentation about a 19th and 20th century criminal, George Appo, had strong reverberations with current concerns over harsh sentences, prison overcrowding and the controversy over detainee abuse.  The images Professor Gilfoyle showed of water tortures used on prisoners in the late 19th century drew a noticeable reaction from the conference participants – clearly calling up the recent use of waterboarding by the CIA.   On Tuesday, as Professor Robertson detailed the influence of the belief in the moral superiority of women in her talk about 19th century women reformers and activists, I couldn’t help but think of late 20th century feminist ideas about the unique and superior moral qualities of women.  But what about the God issue?  Was it a contested issue among progressive-minded reformers, or did the concern about God and atheism really have its start in the post World War II world of anticommunist Cold Warriors?  


On Tuesday, the struggle over God in American public life came up directly during the presentation of book resources by librarian, Carol Inskeep.  She reviewed two important books by Champaign authors – The Lord was Not on Trial by Dannel McCollum and One Woman’s Fight by Vashti McCollum - that directly link local history with a 1945 Supreme Court case profoundly affecting the struggle over God’s role in the public sphere (in this case the public schools).  Ms. Inskeep talked about the stand that Ms. McCollum took against the imposition of “voluntary” religious instruction time in the public schools.  She read to us of the isolation and harassment faced by the McCollums back in the Champaign of 1945, and the courage and conviction of Vashti McCollum in refusing to back down.  I wondered if the roots of such uncompromising secularism had any roots in the 19th century era of reform?  


I found my answer while looking through the Summer Institute 2009 primary documents CD.   I had hoped that I might find something relevant to this American tradition of battling over God, and I wasn’t disappointed.  In the “Illinois Schools” folder I found a scanned document called American Secular Union and Freethought Federation.  The document is a letter, dated October 23, 1912, from E.C. Reichwald, Secretary of  the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation based in Chicago.  Reichwald’s letter is to Francis Blair, Superintendent of Public Instruction, based in Springfield, IL.  Reichwald is contacting the superintendent to request a copy of the School Law of Illinois because it has come to his attention that some public schools are being used for hosting Sunday services – and he believes this is against the law.


In some ways I was quite taken aback by the radical nature of the document – not so much the written correspondence itself – but the letterhead statements regarding the “Nine Demands of Liberalism” and the quotes in support of “State Secularism.”  For example, under the “Nine Demands” one can read demands for the elimination of the following: tax sheltering for religious institutions and their property, employment of chaplains in the military and other government institutions, and the judicial oath.  These demands seem tame compared to the sentiments in the “State Secularism” quotes.  For example Thomas Paine’s is credited with stating that “All National Institutions or churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human institutions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profits.”  I can assure you that even though I was taught about the Thomas Paine who wrote of the “times that try men souls,” I was never exposed to the Thomas Paine who denounced the three great religions of monotheism.  


The document I found would be a great jumping off point for students of US history for several reasons.  It definitely shows that US radical agnosticism was vigorous during the reform period of the late 1800s.  Given that several of its “secular quotes” are from the founders, the letter serves nicely as a midpoint document between the earliest days of the republic and current religious issues such as prayer in school (e.g. recent moment of silence law in Illinois) and faith-based initiatives.  The document also has many local connections: the letterhead indicating that the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation was headquartered in Chicago, a quote the by once-famous 19th century freethought orator and one-time Illinois attorney general Robert G. Ingersoll, and of course the correspondence regarding Illinois public schools. 


There are many interesting avenues of inquiry and debate that students could pursue regarding this letter.  They could be assigned to compare current religious debates with the demands on the letterhead or the concerns of the letter writer.  They could research the sources of the secular quotes and check them for accuracy.  Students could research history of the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation or the biographies of some of the people quoted on the letterhead such as Ingersoll, Putnam or Bennett.


Finally, I thought that this document would be a great background text for a class studying the McCollum case – a local case that made it to the Supreme Court.  A great advantage of researching the McCollum case is the availability of free access - through the Digital Newspaper Collection from the UI (http://www.library.illinois.edu/dnc/idnc/) - to reports published in The Daily Illini at the time.  The Digital Newspaper Collection makes available full text digital scans of The Daily Illini, 1916-1945, The Urbana Daily Courier, 1903-1935, and scattered issues of the Tallula, Illinois Express, 1895-1896. 


For me a great value of the document I found is as a debunker of the current myth that the US was a “Christian” nation until recently.  This revision and idealization of the past has a lot of currency on right-leaning programs such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity.  Instead, the letter and a little research into the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation shows that radical secularism had a popular following in the late 19th century and claimed a lineage leading directly back to some of the most influential founders – Washington, Paine, Franklin, Madison and Jefferson.  This bold letter could open many students eyes to long-running vitality of the debate over the place religion in our country – a debate that is, frankly, as old as the county itself.