What a Paine!
“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe the equality of man, and I believe that the religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
Thomas Paine, one of America’s Founding Father, wrote these words in The Age of Reason, Part First. Immediately after “fellows creatures,” Paine lets loose a salvo of criticisms against “All national Institution of Churches.” He calls Christianity, Judaism, and Islam “human inventions to terrify and enslave mankind and to monopolize power and profit.” After that, he launches, for practical purposes, a book by book assault on the Bible.
Paine’s earlier writings like Common Sense or the Crisis papers stirred the thoughts and hearts of the people toward independence. Even today, his words are used to ignite the fumes of patriotism: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands for it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
As Paine moves through later paragraphs, he mentions God and Heaven. This allows those who quote from the Crisis papers to take cover and avoid the controversy that is Thomas Paine or even allude that he embraced Christianity. Those who quote Paine can hide behind his earlier work of Crisis as if his ideas expressed in The Age of Reason have no refuge there.
In other words, politicians and pundits speak of the Founding Fathers as if they were a monolith of ideals when, by our Founding Father’s own words, they disagreed with one another.
Not all those who signed the Declaration of Independence actually voted for independence. Before ink met paper, before the ink started to dry, and after the ink dried well, our Founding Fathers disagreed on the meaning and expectation of what they wrote.
This was true for both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They argued their points in letters, articles, books and other writings.
Politicians and pundits get away with such generalizations, implying that the Founding Fathers were a monolith of thought and intent, because we may be partial to the message of a contemporary speaker. Also, many of us don’t read what our Founding Fathers wrote about themselves, others, or the issues.
Paine wrote, “Soon after I published Common Sense, in America, I saw the exceeding probability that the Revolution of the System of Government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion...Human inventions of priest craft would be detected and man would return to the pure, unmixed, and unadulterated belief in one God and no more.”
To keep from becoming a yapping dog, a politician may announce before each quote, on this particular point, I agree with (insert Founding Father here). But this doesn’t make for a good media bite. With no singular or composite hero to grab onto, a pundit or politician is only left with a group of ideas generated from the minds and hearts of people who sometimes vehemently disagreed with one another. Imagine that.
As far as The Age of Reason is concerned, I am more in line with two of Samuel Adams’ objections to Paine: The first,
“Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?” The second, “Neither religion nor liberty can long subsist in the tumult of altercation, and amidst the noise and violence of faction.”
Hardy is retired military and a Richmond Hill resident. He writes an occasional column.