One on 1 with Susan Jacoby

One on 1 with Susan Jacoby

“But if there was ever a fallible human document, it is the Constitution.”

Join our One on 1 conversation with author Susan Jacoby. The majority of Jacoby’s works focus on the history of reason, atheism, secularism, and religious liberty. In this video, she will discuss her opinions on an “Age of American Unreason,” a callback to her 2008 New York Times bestseller.


Susan Jacoby: But if there was ever a fallible human document, it is the Constitution.

Max Nosbisch: Hi, we appreciate you all for joining us for this installment of the First Amendment Museum’s One on 1 interview series. The First Amendment Museum is a nonpartisan nonprofit located in Augusta, Maine. My name is Max Nosbisch, and I’m the manager of visitor experiences. Today, I’m joined by author Susan Jacoby. Jacoby is the author of 12 books, including Never Say Die, the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism, and the Age of American Unreason, which was a New York Times bestseller. She has contributed to numerous periodicals, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and the Nation. In February 2010,s he was named to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s honorary board of distinguished achievers. Also, in 2010, she was awarded the Richard Dawkins award by Atheist Alliance International. Susan, glad to have you on.

Susan Jacoby: Glad to be here.

Max Nosbisch: So why do you think the First Amendment is important? What is its purpose? 

Susan Jacoby: The purpose of the First Amendment is not very hard to hear out. It’s to say that there won’t be an established church in the new United States. But there is something I’m going to add here that the First Amendment should never be considered alone, without Article 6 of the Constitution itself. Article 6 says specifically that shall there shall be no religious test for any federal office. Which means that the question that moron Lindsey Graham asked Katanji Brown Jackson about how she would rate her faith on a scale of one to 10 to actually an unconstitutional question. That’s a religious test if I ever heard one. So I think the First Amendment is important because it was just saying the United States is going to be different. We’re not going to have religious wars. That was the idea, anyway.

Max Nosbisch: What made you interested initially in religious liberty, atheism, and secular humanism?

Susan Jacoby: Probably because I went to Catholic school. I was raised at a Catholic school, so I started thinking about religion at a very early age. And really, really, very, very early on, certainly by the time I was 11, or 12, nothing that was taught, was being, made any sense to me, you know, I said, “I just don’t believe this.” And my mother said, “Well, you don’t have to believe everything, just as sister says.” So this is a very un-Catholic thing to say.

Max Nosbisch: Tell me how you think, first of all, religious beliefs of our Supreme Court justices are affecting their decisions and why you think that’s important.

Susan Jacoby: Well, first of all, I, you know, I just pointed out in Article 6 that there’s no religious test for public office. However, it was a bad idea to have a supreme court so heavily biased as it is now after Donald Trump’s appointment. Donald Trump didn’t just pick Roman Catholics because they were Roman Catholics. He picked them because they were a particular kind of Roman Catholics. I think on the Supreme Court, while there should be no religious test, it is a bad idea when the Supreme Court gets stacked in favor of one kind of person. That would be true if they were all Jews, or they were all Black.

Clarence Thomas is both Black and Catholic, something fairly unusual in the United States, but it’s a good argument for diversity in the sense, but certainly, their religious beliefs have to be influencing them. They are opposed to abortion. The Catholic Church, not the Catholic laity, is opposed to abortion. One reason that, in fact, that the number of practicing Catholics has gone down, not only in the United States, but in the developed world is is the church’s official view on things like contraception abortion. Believe Clarence Thomas when he says they’re going to get into contraception next.

Max Nosbisch: In 2008, you wrote a book called The Age of American Unreason and a Culture of Lies. In 2022, are we still in an age of American unreason? Why or why not? 

Susan Jacoby: Oh, well, I couldn’t have imagined how much worse they would have got. It certainly is a book which would which has far more relevance today even than it did then. But I thought the election of Obama was an election of a man of reason as much as our first Black president. And I think now, because of what we’ve been through with Donald Trump and Trumpism conditions, Trump was elected because the conditions were right for it not because he himself is such an appealing guy. The conditions for Trumpism were there and part of it is a huge number of Americans resented the fact that a Black president has been elected. And I think also the, the rise of fascist movements in the United States and around the world has made the problem of unreason much worse today than it was in 2008.

Max Nosbisch: Are you hopeful that things will get better?

Susan Jacoby: No. I wish, I wish… I see people ask this question on television all the time. I cannot say that I am. I would like to be. Let’s put it that way. Right now. I don’t, I don’t see any evidence of it.

Max Nosbisch: How do you utilize the First Amendment in your everyday life? 

Susan Jacoby: Well, I’m a writer. So obviously, if there weren’t a First Amendment, I’d have to worry about every single thing I write. It informs my writing every day. I don’t know what further decisions are going to come from the current court that will be affecting the First Amendment, but I suspect there will be some, and the reason, the reason I don’t feel helpful, is I’m particularly upset at hearing a lot of younger Democrats say they’re not going to vote because they don’t like Joe Biden. They want a younger President. And I understand that. And that’s one of the reasons that I don’t feel optimistic that there is a limit to what can be done without more participation. The Republicans and the far right, they campaigned for 50 years to get the Supreme Court, we’ve got that. And if young people don’t know that the only way we can get the court back is by is by voting and keeping at it over a very long time. I don’t feel very hopeful.

And by the way, there’s one thing I would like to add here that you didn’t ask, but I am sick. And one reason I’m not hopeful at the number of people who have said, including the current speaker of the house of the state of Arizona, would go along with Trump’s big lie. But he said one of the main reasons was that the Constitution was divinely inspired, and his faith in his faith would allow him. The Constitution was not divinely inspired. If ever there was a document that shows us… how something can be written by brilliant, but fallible man… The constitution is a human document, the first human document to say that there should be no religious test for public office. That was the good guys. The good part of the guys who wrote the Constitution. The bad part of the guys who wrote the Constitution is making a slave 1/5 of a man, and three-fifths of a man, and many other things. We know that the Second Amendment, at a time when there weren’t automatic weapons, has had consequences that maybe the framers never intended. But if there was ever a fallible human document, it is the Constitution. And that doesn’t make it bad, but it makes it not divinely inspired. The fact that it is humanly inspired and inspired by very different kinds of humans is one of the reasons we’re having so much trouble now.

Max Nosbisch: Susan, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation. This is where those conversations where I wish we could go longer and I wish we can ask a lot more follow-up questions.

But I appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

Susan Jacoby: I really enjoyed it.