By FRANCIS WILKINSON From Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.) Both John McCain and Barack Obama have b...

By FRANCIS WILKINSON From Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have been peddling their spiritual wares lately. McCain recently made a high-profile pilgrimage to meet evangelist Billy Graham and his son Franklin, while that same week Obama endorsed the essence of President Bush’s faith-based service program. Now, both candidates have agreed to appear at a forum at the California megachurch of influential evangelical pastor Rick Warren.

White evangelical and born-again Christians account for nearly one-fourth of the electorate – a prize understandably worth fighting over. However, what we won’t see, yet again, this year is either candidate acknowledge – let alone pander to – the 16 percent of Americans categorized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Society as atheist, agnostic or free-range “nothing in particular.”

It seems American politicians scarcely think twice about sidling up to the religious fringe – McCain and Obama each has had the odd preacher in the attic. But, fearing the wrath of the righteous, they’d rather be struck by lightning than show a glimmer of respect for nonbelievers.

Their forebears on the campaign trail were not all so skittish. At the end of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll was the most notorious heretic in the land, famous for his lectures debunking Christianity and the Bible. Yet Republicans – yes, the party of George W. Bush and the Rev. Pat Robertson – begged him to campaign in their behalf.

Campaign, he did. For more than two decades, Ingersoll barnstormed across the country drawing huge crowds, including one at an 1896 campaign appearance in Chicago for William McKinley that the Chicago Tribune claimed was 20,000 strong. Ingersoll was not merely a stage attraction but a confidant of Republican leaders – and a highly public one. In a masterful speech, he nominated Sen. James G. Blaine for president at the party’s 1876 convention in Cincinnati and nearly won Blaine the nomination. When Blaine lost the contest to Rutherford B. Hayes, Ingersoll stumped vigorously for Hayes in turn.

Ingersoll’s lectures on religion – “Some Mistakes of Moses” was a typical title – left the pious apoplectic. Evangelicals considered his influence so pernicious that they organized a day of prayer for his conversion. (He thanked them for their concern but remained happily heretical.)

His pointed, often comical, impiety probably cost him a cabinet post or ambassadorship, but Ingersoll’s proximity to President Hayes and his Republican successors was nonetheless on open display; they didn’t reach for garlic and crucifixes when “Pope Bob” visited the White House.

Victorian America, that supposedly repressed, high-button era, not only tolerated Ingersoll, it celebrated him, rewarding him with respect and wealth and honors. Mark Twain called Ingersoll a “master,” and Walt Whitman described him as “a bright, magnificent constellation.”

But Ingersoll struck a chord that reverberated beyond the cultural elite. Tens of thousands of Americans, from Buffalo to New Orleans, paid money to listen, laugh and learn at the feet of the Great Agnostic, even if they didn’t share his views. Clerics were often spotted in the crowds.

Faith is a deep wellspring of American political tradition and practice. But the political class has reached a bipartisan consensus to honor that fact by muscling out other views and revising both past and present to suggest faith is the only wellspring.

Ingersoll, after all, was hardly the first doubting Thomas ever to have crossed the White House threshold. Thomas Jefferson produced his own, radically truncated, version of the Bible, in which miracles were absent. He described religion as a private matter in which the public had no right to “intermeddle.” In how many congressional districts today could a candidate of like mind stand for election and not be torn to pieces by the enforcers of public piety?

Looking back from this era in which political discourse is bound by religious strictures, Ingersoll’s legend seems not only distant but tall, as though he were a kind of Paul Bunyan of blasphemy. Today, no major politician would risk association with the brilliant and big-hearted Great Agnostic, whose oratory commanded the late 19th century stage like no other. Devoted father, husband, friend and patriot be damned. Piety trumps all.

(Francis Wilkinson is executive editor of The Week and He is a former communications consultant for corporations and Democratic campaigns.

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July 22, 2008
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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