“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” President Obama said in his inaugural address. That last, lonely word in the sequence—bumping along in the rumble seat, Chaplin-like, behind the two respectable couples—marked a major departure. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 16 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” America has more “nonbelievers,” broadly defined, than Jews, Hindus, and Muslims combined. But until Obama’s historic shout-out from the Capitol, nonreligious Americans were almost entirely absent from contemporary political rhetoric.
The 19th century was less restrictive—at least while Robert G. Ingersoll was around. Ingersoll, the most renowned orator of the post–Civil War era, was also its most famous nonbeliever. He traveled the country delivering lengthy, meticulously prepared, and often hilarious assaults on organized religion, leavening his remarks with enough goodwill (and comic timing) that even men of the cloth were drawn to his performances. In addition to being a freethinker, Ingersoll was an influential Republican. Candidates begged him to campaign on their behalf, especially after his stemwinder nominating Sen. James G. Blaine for president at the 1876 Republican convention nearly put Blaine atop the Republican ticket. A fixture of society in Washington and New York, and a welcome guest of Republicans in the White House, Ingersoll was lauded by Whitman, Twain, Carnegie, and other leading lights. But he is seldom recalled today. A single, surprising word uttered by the new president surely won’t change that. But for a brief moment in Washington, a spark of “Ingersollism” flickered across the land.