High school student Sarah Henry came from Kentucky to Washington, DC, to preach blasphemy this past Sunday.
“The improved man will believe only in the religion of this world,” she told an audience of some fifty heathens at James Hoban’s Irish Bar near Dupont Circle:
He will have nothing to do with the miraculous and supernatural. He will find that there is no room in the universe for these things. He will know that happiness is the only good…and that to do the things (and no other) that add to the happiness of man is to practice the highest possible religion. His motto will be: “Sufficient unto each world is the evil thereof.”
It was Henry’s first time competing in the Robert G. Ingersoll Oratory Contest, in which contestants deliver the speeches of nineteenth-century America’s “Great Agnostic.”
Ingersoll was a Civil War veteran, Republican power broker, and vocal critic of organized religion. You probably haven’t heard of him, but the purpose of the contest is to fix that. Steve Lowe, who started the annual contest in 2009, says he and other DC-area secularists want to revive the legacy of a great American “freethinker” who has been unjustly forgotten by history.
A superstar on the lecture circuit, Ingersoll was quite probably the most-heard speaker of the Gilded Age, surpassing even Mark Twain and presidents. His “Plumed Knight” endorsement speech for James Blaine in 1876 became the gold standard for nominations. He packed lecture halls with angry clergy, curious Congressmen, and common folk alike.
As eleven contestants took to the podium on such subjects as “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child” and “Is the Old Testament Inspired?” it became clear why Ingersoll was so popular: his speeches are high-minded without being overwrought, and shot through with a humanist humor and joie de vivre that are scarce in the New Atheist polemics, now that Christopher Hitchens is gone.
In the voice of contestant Mike Schmidtmann, Ingersoll took an editor’s pen to the 10 Commandments: “If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: ‘Thou shalt not enslave thy fellow-men.’”
In Ms. Henry’s chosen speech, Ingersoll preached Front Porch Republicanism:
The Improved Man will find his greatest joy in the happiness of others and he will know that the home is the real temple. He will believe in the democracy of the fireside, and will reap his greatest reward in being loved by those whose lives he has enriched.
In the spirit of the great socializer Ingersoll, once winners were decided—Ms. Henry, the youngest contestant, snagged 1st place and $250—the group retired to the bar.
Ingersoll’s star is on the rise, with the recent publication of Susan Jacoby’s widely reviewed The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Alan Jacobs tweaked it here at TAC). As Jacoby notes in the book, one of Ingersoll’s lasting intellectual contributions was to restore the godless Thomas Paine (“that filthy little atheist” to Teddy Roosevelt) to prominence among the founding fathers.
Jacoby also wants to peg Ingersoll as a modern progressive; however, Dan McCarthy and Robert Nisbet, no less, have seen him as part of a long-standing conservative secular tradition including William Graham Sumner and David Hume.
Whoever claims Ingersoll today, in his own day he accumulated so much political favor that when he died in 1899, many obituaries admitted that he would have been a credible candidate for President of the United States were he not such an outspoken infidel. One editor noted
Hypocrisy in religion pays. There will come a time when public men may speak their honest convictions in religion without being maligned by the ignorant and superstitious, but not yet.
As America’s secularists aim to bring that day closer, to convince their deeply suspicious fellow-citizens that irreligion is not a subversive, alien, British-accented anomaly, but a proud part of the American tradition, they could certainly pick a worse hero than the affable, quotable Ingersoll.