Interview: Susan Jacoby, Author Of 'The Great Agnostic' Robert Ingersoll was one of the most famous people in late 19th century America, but he's almost forgotten today. His crime? Biographer Susan Jacoby says Ingersoll argued against religion in public life and said "There is nothing like reading the Bible literally to make you question it."

'The Great Agnostic': Giving Up Politics To Preach Against Religion

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Attention American history buffs: here's a name you might not have heard before.

SUSAN JACOBY: Robert Ingersoll was one of the most famous people in America in the last quarter of the 19th century.

MARTIN: That's Susan Jacoby. She's written a new biography about the man who was known as The Great Agnostic.

JACOBY: He went around the country. He spoke to more people than presidents. He was also an active mover and shaker behind the scenes in the Republican Party.

MARTIN: So why has Robert Ingersoll been mostly forgotten?

JACOBY: He spoke out in favor of the separation of church and state, explaining Darwin's Theory of Evolution to people, and basically battling government interference in religion. Because of this, as The New York Times said - in his obituary when he died in 1899 - he couldn't run for public office even though he was a big deal behind the scenes in the Republican Party.

Because even then, although most of the Republican presidents from Lincoln on didn't even belong to a church, you still if you were an open agnostic or atheist could not hope to run for public office. And one of the reasons I most admire him is he gave up a public career. He thought it was more important to talk about the ways in which fundamentalist religion was a bad thing.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about how the message was received. You say he was obviously a big proponent of separation of church and state. He spoke out against any kind of fundamentalist religious views. How did that go over at the time?

JACOBY: He had enormous audiences. After the Civil War, Americans started reading about Darwin's Theory of Evolution, which was first published in 1859. There was also enormous immigration of both Jews and Catholics from southern Italy and the Slavic countries after 1880. So, it was a time of enormous change. And he was received with interest and, of course, with enormous controversy. Ingersoll was probably the first person who said: I don't believe in a God that a lot of people had ever seen.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about his influences. His father, interestingly enough, was a minister. Obviously, he chose a very different path.

JACOBY: Like Abraham Lincoln, who was his hero, Ingersoll had very little formal schooling. But because his father was a minister, there was a library, and there was a library of all of the things that Ingersoll came not to believe. There is nothing like reading the Bible literally to make you question it. Ingersoll said that quite often.

MARTIN: Was he close with his father? What was their relationship like?

JACOBY: His father was a very unsuccessful minister, not because he wasn't orthodox in religion but because he was an abolitionist. And one of the religious lies that Americans cling to today is that, quote, "religion," unquote, all religion was in favor of the abolition of slavery. This was not true of mainstream religion in the North for a long time. A lot of Presbyterians in the North, when Ingersoll's father was a minister, were a lot more concerned about keeping their ties with the Southern churches of their denomination than they were with anything to do with slavery. So, Ingersoll's father, while he was rigidly orthodox in religious matters, was strongly anti-slavery. So, this may have had more influence on him than any reaction against his father's religious orthodoxy.

MARTIN: It wasn't enough for Ingersoll to just hold these views privately. He proselytized, in essence. What was his intention?

JACOBY: One of the things Ingersoll wanted to do, the most important thing he wanted to do, was revive the secular portion of America's revolutionary history. He did not want to deny the role of religion in the founding of America but he wanted to put it in its perspective. To this question we hear today, was America founded as a Christian nation, as controversial then as it is now, Ingersoll's answer was no. And he went around explaining why it was no. May I read you what he had to say...

MARTIN: Please.

JACOBY: ...about what officeholders had to do in order to be considered for office, how they had to deny their views on separation...


JACOBY: ...of church and state? Here is what he said in 1885: (Reading) At present, the successful office-seeker is a good deal like the center of the earth. He weighs nothing himself but draws everything else to him. There are so many churches and so many isms it's impossible for an independent man to succeed in a political career. Candidates are forced to pretend they are Catholic with Protestant proclivities or Christians with liberal tendencies or temperance men who now and then who take a glass of wine. Although they are not members of any church, their wives are, and that they subscribe liberally to all. The result of all of this is we reward hypocrisy and elect men entirely destitute of real principle. And this will never change until the people become grand enough to do their own thinking. I think that's very appropriate after the clownish performance of Congress at the end of its session this year.

MARTIN: Well, and that leads to the question: what do you think Ingersoll would think about today's political climate when we live in a political culture where someone's religious identity is a big part of their electability?

JACOBY: I think what would have astonished men like Ingersoll is the survival of fundamentalism. I don't think that they would have been at all surprised that people are still religious. I think they would have been very surprised that anybody by the end of the 20th century would have been running for office on the platform that the Bible is literally true.

MARTIN: Susan Jacoby. The book is called "The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Free Thought." Ms. Jacoby, thanks so much for taking the time.

JACOBY: Thank you.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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