THE BLOG
01/25/2013 04:43 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2013

Republican Freethought

In her absorbing, difficult-to-put-down account of Robert G. Ingersoll, the charismatic orator, political thinker and Republican mover-and-shaker of the 1870s and 1880s, Susan Jacoby revisits the compelling history and insights of "the greatest American popularizer of freethought, agnosticism, and evolution."

Her dazzling account of the portly, big-hearted Ingersoll, who in his words tried to "retire the gods from politics," offers a study in contrasts between the Republican party of the 1870s and that of the contemporary GOP, one of whose House science committee members recently spoke of evolution, the Big Bang theory and embryology as "lies straight from the pit of hell" -- "lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior." And who can forget GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum declaring publicly that the very thought of an absolute separation of church and state "makes me want to throw up"?

According to "The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought," Jacoby's engaging, just-published book, Ingersoll began political life as a Democrat, but quickly found among Republicans a much-stronger commitment to freethought -- "that lovely term," she writes in her introduction, "that first appeared in England in the late seventeenth century and was meant to convey devotion to a way of looking at the world based on observation rather than on ancient 'sacred' writings by men who believed that the sun revolved around the earth."

Not only were many more American freethinkers in the 1860s and '70s affiliated with the Republican Party than with the Democratic, notes Jacoby, but "the party of Lincoln was also the party most closely associated with respect for contemporary science, liberalizing trends within Protestantism, and the separation of church and state."

Among her examples are Ulysses S. Grant, two-term U.S. President (1869-1877) after Andrew Johnson, a Republican "who not only refused to join a church but also suggested that it might be a good idea to eliminate property tax exemptions for religious institutions."

"Grant's proposal that churches pay taxes went nowhere," Jacoby acknowledges,

but Republican efforts to bar any tax support for religious schools were more successful during Grant's two-term presidency. In 1875, as Speaker of the House, [James G.] Blaine nearly succeeded in persuading Congress to pass a constitutional amendment -- first suggested by James Madison during the debate over ratification of the Bill of Rights and recent proposed by President Grant -- that would in effect have extended the First Amendment's establishment clause to the states. The Blaine amendment stipulated that "no state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The amendment passed the House 180-to-7 and fell just four votes short of a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

But it is Ingersoll himself -- by all accounts a brilliant, electrifying speaker -- who best exemplifies the embrace of freethought that has all-but-vanished from the GOP today. The man, claims Jacoby, who "would have been President of the United States" had he not been "frank enough to express his opinions on religion," was emphatic in his wish to end superstition and remove mythology from politics: "It never did seem reasonable to me," he told rapt audiences across America, "that a long, cold and disgusting snake with an apple in its mouth could deceive anybody."

"Do you know," the jovial iconoclast would ask them, "that every race has created all its gods and all its devils?" "Religion has not civilized man," he would sum up, "man has civilized religion. God improves as man advances."

The fearless Ingersoll, notes Jacoby,

"repudiated the social Darwinism that was as much an article of faith for many wealthy misinterpreters of Darwin's theory of evolution as Genesis was for religious fundamentalists. Endorsing both the eight-hour day and the right of workers to strike if humane working conditions could be achieved in no other way, [the Republican] argued, 'The working people should be protected by law. If they are not, the capitalists will require just as many hours as human nature can bear.'"

He identified with the tradition of freethought that included Paine's "Age of Reason," not with that of the social Darwinists of the 19th century, whose thinking, observes Jacoby, "continues through the 'objectivism' and exaltation of the Übermensch preached by the twentieth-century atheist and unregulated market idolator Ayn Rand."

In addition to publishing essays on "The Gods" and "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child," marking his lifelong commitment to women's rights, as well as an "Address" advancing his fervent abolitionism, Ingersoll penned an 1896 essay, "Why I Am an Agnostic," which details the basis of his doubt and commitment to freethought:

"I was raised among people who knew -- who were certain. They did not reason or investigate. They had no doubts ... In their creed there was no guess -- no perhaps."

A longer tribute to that essay and what it made possible appears here.

For Ingersoll, who in Jacoby gets the best-possible popularizer of his thinking, a commitment to secularism and freethought meant "food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, and the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all, liberty."

A bold and brilliant contributor to American freethought, the Republican iconoclast offered a big-hearted, optimistic vision of life that boiled down to practical ethics, wisdom and justice in the here-and-now: "Happiness is the only good," he liked to tell the vast crowds that turned out to hear him. "The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."