Jacoby, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought”

Here’s a celebration of Robert Ingersoll, the silver-tongued anti-IngersollCatholic, ardent supporter of James G. Blaine and his notions of separation of church and state, and one-time member of the late nineteenth-century progressive “National Liberal League”: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press 2012), by the popular polemicist Susan Jacoby.  Ingersoll once wrote that America would “tear the bloody hands of the Church from the white throat of science,” and such rhetoric stood him in very good stead in the Republican party of the 1870s and 1880s.  The publisher’s description follows.

During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America’s enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as “the Great Agnostic.” The nation’s most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of  Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since America’s revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the U.S. presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.

In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of  “new atheists.” Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America’s often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women’s rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll’s time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as one of the indispensable public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all—liberty of conscience belonging  to the religious and nonreligious alike.

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