A New Birth of Reason: Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic and the Founders’ Belief in Separation of Church and State
The idea of the separation of church and state was not always as contentious as it is now.
For a long time it was understood that separation served both the political identity and religious identities of American and America.
When Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead,’ he was to a large degree correct. The God that Nietzsche referred to was indeed passing. The Church, once repressive and oppressive, was undergoing a transformation. That transformation very much embodied the American ideal. The founders of this country were fleeing religious persecution and in fact, the principles and guarantors of freedom in this country were deemed to be religious rights and not just secular rights. With first hand experience with persecution, they understood God made room for all kinds of believers and non believers. Free will no longer had any fine print attached to it.
This was for the founders a sacred idea. Leviticus 25:10 is instructive:
Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.
America was to be a secular nation where believers of all faiths could worship in peace and without fear of persecution. The Founding Fathers were all Christians of course- but they understood for the higher ideals of the nation to be recognized and preserved for all, the secular state was best suited to preserve the character of the nation, preserving not religion, but the freedom to worship as one pleased, The state would not and cold not endorse a particular religion- the state would and could preserve the rights and freedoms of all men, equally created, to worship as they please.
A miracle, indeed.
Why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation’s historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to what is called “niche fame” on the Internet? Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), known in the last quarter of the 19th century as the Great Agnostic, once possessed real fame as one of the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history—the other being Thomas Paine. Indeed, one of Ingersoll’s lasting accomplishments as the preeminent American orator of his era was the revival of Paine, the preeminent publicist of the American Revolution, in the historical memory and imagination of the nation.
Ingersoll emerged as the leading figure in what historians of American secularism consider the golden age of freethought—an era when immigration, industrialization, and science, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, were challenging both religious orthodoxy and the supposedly simpler values of the nation’s rural Anglo-Saxon past. That things were never really so simple was the message Ingersoll repeatedly conveyed as he spoke before more of his countrymen than even elected public leaders, including presidents, did at a time when lectures were both a form of mass entertainment and a vital source of information.
Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. Between 1875 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Known as Robert Injuresoul to his clerical enemies, he raised the issue of what role religion ought to play in the public life of the American nation for the first time since the writing of the Constitution, when the Founders deliberately left out any acknowledgment of a deity as the source of governmental power. In one of his most popular lectures, titled “Individuality,” Ingersoll said of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin