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Convention speech: R. Laurence Moore — The intrusion of religion into public life


To watch R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick’s speech, go to

R. Laurence Moore (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Author and scholar R. Laurence Moore spoke on Oct. 18 at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Chris Line)

This is an edited version of the speech given by R. Laurence Moore at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. He and Isaac Kramnick shared the stage to talk about their book, Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic. (Kramnick’s speech is reprinted on pages 12-13.) Moore was introduced by FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott:

One of the classic works in our specialized field at FFRF of defending the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is a book called The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. It came out in 1997 and was co-written by our next speakers, the distinguished scholars Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. Although The Godless Constitution is hard to obtain these days, the pair followed it up in 2018 with a new classic: Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in Public Life. And, by the way, the Freedom From Religion Foundation gets a wonderful shout-out in the chapter “The Atheist Awakening.”

R. Laurence Moore is the Howard A. Newman Professor of History and American Studies, Emeritus, at Cornell University, where he taught from 1972 until his retirement. He was born in Houston and was educated at Stanford, Rice and Yale. Moore has lived abroad with fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, from Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford. He has also been a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He has taught and written in the field of American culture and intellectual history. Please join me in welcoming Larry Moore.   

By R. Laurence Moore

I want to begin by taking back something that Isaac and I once wrote — the first lines of a book we published in 1996: The Godless Constitution. “Americans seem to fight about many silly things: whether a copy of the Ten Commandments can be posted in a city courthouse, whether a holiday display that puts an image of the baby Jesus next to a Frosty the Snowman violates the Constitution, whether  grade-schoolers may stand for a moment in silent spiritual meditation before class begins. Common sense might suggest that these are harmless practices whose actual damage is to trivialize religion. Otherwise they threaten no one.”

We were trying to establish some priorities to highlight what was our main target — the intrusion of religion into American politics. But 20-plus years observing the behavior of leading American evangelicals has changed our minds. In fact, everything that privileges belief over nonbelief in our public culture matters. Every intrusion of religion into American public life works to create a culture where rhetoric that makes no sense passes for normal. That’s a position we take in Godless Citizens.

The number of people in this country who say they have no affiliation with any religion — who pollsters call the Nones — are as numerous as the number of conservative evangelicals — around 26 percent of the population. Yet, evangelicals make cowards out of politicians. Even the nonbelieving ones duck if asked about their religion. “Yes, God blesses this country,” they all chime in, regardless of party.

And that’s because polls clearly show that a declaration of nonbelief is a poor way to begin a political campaign. Around 50 percent of people in both political parties say they would not vote for a well-qualified candidate nominated by their party who didn’t believe in God. A woman, yes. An African-American, yes. A Muslim, yes. An atheist, no. 

A belief that predated the founding of the United States, one championed by an early advocate of religious liberty, John Locke, held that anyone who would not take an oath before God could not be trusted. This outdated prejudice nonetheless has persisted into the 21st century. One of the things we try to do in our book is praise organizations like FFRF for doing something about it.

Early in the 1800s and continuing through the 19th century, small groups of urban freethinkers began a tradition of meeting on Jan. 29 to celebrate Thomas Paine’s birthday. Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published early in 1776, did as much as any written document to spark the American Revolution.  He was a lionized patriot for 10 years, but, when he died in 1809, his days as a popular hero were over. His reputation had plummeted. What happened?

He went to France, got behind a very different revolution that was stridently anti-clerical, and wrote The Age of Reason, the treatise that celebrated reason over the claims of the revealed religion laid down in the bible. Paine now used the same common sense that he had employed in 1776 to show the worthlessness of the crowned despots of Europe to unmask the tyranny of biblical scripture.

Paine believed in a designer god who gave human beings the reason necessary to understand creation, but he was a sort of absentee landlord god who didn’t demand worship or prayer or much attention at all.  Not atheism — just militantly anti-Christian and the tenets of any revealed religion. Religious leaders, as soon as the book was published, equated Paine’s deism with atheism.

Their campaign to make Paine a “filthy little atheist” (Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase 100 years later) was long and determined and successful. Atheism became in the 19th century a blanket term for any sort of religious freethought. It was a term of opprobrium.

I’ll mention one 19th-century example to show how quickly this bias became rooted in our politics. Robert Ingersoll demonstrates how, in a short time, you can go from being a household name in the United States — and Ingersoll was during his lifetime — to a forgotten man, which he became almost instantly after his death. As a young man, he emerged as an extremely talented political aspirant who many thought was headed for high office.

When he died, a eulogy in the Washington Post in 1899, said, “With his splendid gifts of oratory, his magnetic manners, his genial humor . . . there was no position of honor to which he might have aspired with an almost certainly of success but for his agnosticism.”

Ingersoll developed his doubts about God at almost the same time he set out after the Civil War (served with distinction) to win a political office in Illinois. He could have done what many other politicians have done and doubtlessly still do, and followed the advice of his close friends, who told him to shut up and go to church. Instead, he publicly embraced the label “agnostic,” a word just coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s English champion, and began to publish articles attacking theistic faith in sarcastic terms that Paine would have relished. Paine was one of his heroes.

At first, the political fallout wasn’t clear. At the 1876 Republican convention, he was picked to nominate for the presidency the senior senator from Maine, James G. Blaine. In a fiery speech widely regarded as the best at the convention, he dubbed Blaine the “Plumed Knight” — still a useful detail for high school students taking an AP test in American history. Despite the speech, the nomination went to Rutherford B. Hayes and Ingersoll ended up campaigning for him. Hayes prevailed in a contested general election, and a grateful Hayes tried to make Ingersoll the American ambassador to Germany. The nomination went nowhere. This was from The New York Times: “The suggestion that a declared and boasting unbeliever should be chosen to represent a Christian country brought a storm of indignation.” The political consequences were now clear.

Ingersoll never thereafter ran for office, but he had a successful and controversial career as a lecturer, appearing in almost every state and filling the biggest auditoriums to attack Christianity, the bible and clerics. Public oratory was a form of entertainment and no one did it better than Ingersoll — humorous and good natured, but he did not mince words: “What is real blasphemy? It is to prevent the growth of the human mind, to pollute children’s minds with the dogma of eternal punishment, to excite the prejudice of ignorance and superstition.”

Ingersoll was basically a conservative who loved his country.  Atheism has often in American history been equated with political radicalism, especially during the era of the Cold War, when the linkage commanded bipartisan political support. Ingersoll was a great orator who could make complex issues seem simple and clear. He had an abiding love of his wife and daughters who were often in his audience. A family man with family values. He might have become president and even a good one — except he didn’t believe in God and that fact disqualified him. At the end of his life, he didn’t record any regrets and went to his grave committed to Thomas Paine’s statement “that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a

R. Laurence Moore signs copies of his book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic. (Photo by Chris Line)

child cannot be true.”

Still, Ingersoll presented a clear lesson. If you want a high political office in the United States, don’t mix your work with an insistence that Christianity is a foolish set of superstitions that cripple the progress of reason and science. The political exclusion of nonbelievers continues to plague our politics and poison our public culture.

Textbooks of American history are filled with examples of how religion shaped our country. Puritans did what they did because they were religious. Slave religion proved an essential way for African-Americans in the antebellum South to define their humanity and free blacks in the North relied on black churches to build resistance to discrimination. That’s true and ought to be told.

But what we need to challenge is the habit of saying nothing about the importance of nonbelief to many people who also helped to build this country: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell. Contributions noted, but not with any suggestion that their break from religion had anything to do with their creativity. It did.

Our book seeks to give nontheists a reason to be angry and not just shrug their shoulders when religious symbols exclude them. A cross erected on public land to memorialize war dead is not a case of inoffensive ceremonial deism, whatever the Supreme Court says.

Inspired by Ingersoll, the botanist Luther Burbank, when he was 77, wrote an article that declared “I Am an Infidel.” His decision to announce publicly views he had long held was prompted by the dismay he felt over the so-called Scopes-Darwin trial in 1925 that pitted the religious fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan against the agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow. When John Scopes was convicted for illegally teaching evolution to the children of Dayton, Tenn., Burbank wrote in exasperation, “And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture.” Burbank was ashamed that he had been afraid to speak out earlier. Speaking out is important.

In the Parc Montsouris in Paris, there is a full-size statute of Thomas Paine. There is no memorial to him of any kind in Washington. The Age of Reason kept him out of the pantheon of American heroes. There ought to be a statue because no one better represented the boldness, the rudeness if you like, of the American experiment than Paine. It should be inscribed with the words he penned in 1775 that were not controversial to our revolutionary forebears and should not be controversial now, “When we yield up the exclusive privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.