Longing For Liberty: Susan Jacoby's New Book Traces Conversion's Connection To Religious Freedom

Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion by Susan Jacoby, Pantheon Books, 464 pp.


Susan Jacoby, the author of The Age of Unreason, Freethinkers and other books, tackles the thorny subject of religious conversion in her compelling new release from Pantheon Books.

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion critically examines conversion narratives, mostly within the context of Western Christianity, and provides them with historical and cultural context often omitted in other re­tel­lings.

“Religious conversion is an irresist­ible subject for a secularist or an atheist precisely because so much human energy, throughout recorded history, has been expended on persuading or forcing large numbers of people to replace belief in one supernatural mystery with another,” Jacoby, an atheist, explains in her introduction.

But this endeavor is personal as well as philosophical. She opens with a discussion of her own family’s relationship to the subject: Her father, a relatively non-observant Jew, converted to Cath­olicism upon marriage. His uncle had converted to the Episcopalian Church, and Jacoby’s father told his children he’d grown up in the same denomination.

“When I was growing up,” she writes, “I could not have possibly known that in the first half of the 20th Century, mainstream Protestantism was a much more common choice than Catholicism for Jews wishing to conceal their origins, because Protestants occupied a much higher social and economic rung than Catholics in the American class hierarchy.”

Jacoby, therefore, understands the uneasy significance of conversion. Secularism is a relatively recent experiment in the long relationship between state power and religious faith; states have historically enforced the dictates of one faith to the detriment of others. Discrimination manifested in various forms, but although its severity varied, conversion remained a consistent way to elevate one’s social standing and escape retribution for belonging to a hated sect.

As a consequence, coerced conversions occupy a significant portion of the book. But she is careful to note in her introduction that conversion is also a matter of conscience, “an intense emotional desire to believe in something true.”

The first convert she profiles, St. Augustine of Hippo, falls mostly in this category. Augustine initially professed an affiliation with the Manichees, a dualistic sect popular in his era. The Manichees eventually ran afoul of the Roman Cath­olic authorities of the day, but Augustine had already converted by the time this occurred.

Augustine is still revered by many in the Catholic Church (and some outside it) as a theologian and phil­osopher. Religious tolerance, how­­ever, was not his forte. In The City of God, he stopped just short of advocating for the genocide of Jews. Instead, Jacoby writes, he argued that Jews “should be harassed, dispersed throughout the world at the pleasure of Christian rulers, treated as constant targets for conversion, but not, in the end, exterminated.”

Thus to all heretics, Augustine – and eventually Catholic authorities — concluded. According to Jacoby, Augustine’s work dramatically influenced Catholic Church policies toward Jews and the other religious minorities living under its thumb.

For centuries after Augustine’s death, Jews suffered the brunt of the Catholic Church’s disdain. In Spain specifically, the violent transition from Muslim to Catholic rule had cat­astrophic consequences for the country’s Jewish minority.

Jacoby includes a detailed account of their transition from a relatively peaceful existence under Muslim control to bloody persecution under Isabella and Ferdinand, whose Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula also re-established Catholicism as its state-sanctioned faith.

In 1492, the joint monarchs signed an order expelling tens of thousands of observant Jews – from the country. Those who remained risked the wrath of the Inquisition. (The order was eventually expanded to include Muslims.)

Isabella and Ferdinand’s inquisitors wielded conversion like a weapon. For Spain to become a truly Catholic country, Judaism, a public manifestation of Jewishness, had to be eradicated. The persecution created a few high-profile Jewish converts. One, a Talmudic scholar turned Catholic bishop, is the subject of an illuminating and somewhat sympathetic chapter. Jacoby also profiles another famous converso descendent: Baruch Spinoza, arguably the preeminent freethinker of the years just preceding the Enlightenment. His ancestors had fled Spain for the Netherlands.

The ramifications of European persecution eventually resounded far outside the continent’s borders. Religious authorities relentlessly hounded minority groups from their lands; as a result, these displaced people made homes in exile.

English intolerance drove the Puritans across the sea to their shining city upon a hill; it also scattered Quakers and other sects deep into the American wilderness. In France, meanwhile, beleaguered Protestants (called Huguenots) often converted to Catholicism in response to persecution. Jacoby puts the number of converted Huguenots at around 200,000. The rest fled to the Netherlands, Switzerland and eventually America. This decimated the Huguenot presence in France; Jacoby argues that the phenomenon’s impact is comparable to Spain’s expulsion of Muslims and conversos.

To minority faith groups like the Huguenots, the American colonies offered significant challenges but also the chance to experience an unprecedented liberty: religious freedom. The presence of Huguenots, English Protestant dissenters and Jews also prevented colonial America from ever becoming a philosophical mon­o­lith and arguably influenced the founders’ decision to ensure that their new republic enshrined separation of church and state.

“Nevertheless, anyone who cherishes the secular side of America’s heritage can only take pride in the American tapestry of religious pluralism that emerged during the colonial era,” Jacoby writes. “That the informal tapestry would be woven, in only 150 years, into the first government framework based not on the authority of God but on the rights of man, would seem less than a miracle – or, at the very least, a Puritan ‘wonder’ – to anyone with an inclination toward belief in the supernatural.”

Paul Revere and George Washington both claimed Huguenot descent; there is some evidence that this heritage influenced Washington’s approach to religious freedom. In a 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., he promised that the nascent American government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Newport’s Jews would not be cast from American shores. Neither would the Huguenots. 

Jacoby directly credits Europe’s 16th and 17th Century religious wars for the founders’ embrace of religious tolerance; America’s secular government marked a significant shift from the dis­crimination that had long tarnished Europe and threatened to undermine the Enlightenment’s philosophical gains. The First Amend­ment honored and protected America’s burgeoning religious diversity, and provided a legal foundation to prevent the discrimination that forced so many dissenters to risk a new life in the New World. 

Strange Gods is a provocative and well-researched account of influential conversion stories. Jacoby succeeds in explaining conversion’s dual character as a matter of conscience and a political act. Readers will likely be familiar with some historical episodes she profiles; the biographies of Augustine, Edith Stein and Mohammed Ali are well-trod ground. Others, like Bishop Paul of Burgos, are more obscure.

Jacoby particularly excels at introducing her audience to these unfamiliar stories in an accessible manner, and her narrative voice is lively and witty. Jacoby’s obvious passion for the subject matter compels the reader to keep pace with her on a meandering journey from North Africa to North America.

Jacoby’s work is extremely valuable. Readers of Church & State will appreciate it as a profound celebration of religious freedom and of the separation of church and state – which Jacoby amusingly describes as a principle for which the Religious Right “should fall on their knees and thank their god.”     

 

 Note: This version has been corrected from the print edition.