Thursday, February 23, 2012

Apropos of not much...Thomas Paine, a cautionary tale

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times elsewhere, the story of Thomas Paine in the late 18th century provides some lessons for the present.

Paine was a popular and influential pamphleteer in the American Revolution whose radical writings were controversial but convincing and attracted a great number of allies. But with his publication of The Age of Reason, many turned their backs on him. Although the political battle over religion and public life Paine’s work touched off in his era redounded to the benefit of the Republicans, its favorable settlement rested on Paine’s ostracism and an exclusion of more radical voices, with effects that arguably we’re still dealing with.

Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Marcus Daniel’s Scandal & Civility

both discuss “the transformation of Paine from revered patriot into devil’s spawn in little more than twenty years” (Jacoby, p. 36). Both argue that the impetus was The Age of Reason. “Although Paine’s economic and political ideas were too radical for some of his contemporaries,” Jacoby remarks, “his jaundiced view of religion proved the primary cause of his fall from American grace” (p. 36).

Paine wasn’t an atheist but a deist, and a number of American Protestants were quite fine with attacks on the Catholic Church in France. But The Age of Reason indicted not just Catholicism but Christianity, and in fact all revealed religion:
With the publication of the Age of Reason, Paine’s revolutionary deism parted company with radical Protestantism. Paine’s previous religious pluralism had been based on his belief that all religions were originally ‘kind and benign, and united with principles of morality’ but became corrupted by their entanglement with political power. Now, he argued that all forms of revealed religion were inherently corrupt and oppressive and that the only reliable source of religious knowledge was the natural world – the ‘Bible of the Deist’ – and the only reliable interpreter of this source was the individual consciousness. (Daniel, p. 242)
For many, this went too far:
The revolution’s greatest publicist was greeted in the press – especially the Federalist press… – by admonitions to shut up, return to the Old World, or prepare to endure his just punishment in the next world. (Jacoby, pp. 36-7)

His assault on Christianity completed the alienation of middle-class dissenters like Joseph Priestley* and moderate Whigs like Richard Watson, the Anglican bishop of Llandaff, who believed that Paine’s ‘extraordinary performance’ had ‘unsettled the faith of thousands’ and spread its ‘poison through all the classes of the community’. (Daniel, p. 243)
The Federalists and their papers used Paine’s radical writings about religion to go after the Republicans, Jefferson in particular, and seized upon the controversy to put religion front and center and to try to defeat Jefferson’s presidential bid by linking him and the Republicans to Paine’s radical religious views:
Although the Age of Reason did not transform the religious landscape of the United States, it politicized the issue of religion itself, giving the clergy an opportunity to reassert their traditional role as guardians of public virtue. It also gave Federalists a chance to portray republicans as agents of infidelity and themselves as defenders of Christian orthodoxy and to make belief in Christianity a litmus test for holding public office. (Daniel, p. 248)
In some momentous ways, of course, the Federalists failed. As Daniel notes,
The Federalist crusade against infidelity made religion a central political issue in the late 1790s. But rather than discrediting and dividing Republicans, the Federalist campaign ignited a fierce public debate about the relationship between religion and politics that ultimately benefited and united them. (Daniel, p. 251)
But we can see in Daniel’s description of the Republican response hints of a loss:
While Federalist clergymen believed that religion should play a central role in public life and that civic engagement was an important part of religious life, Republican commentators argued exactly the opposite: religion had no legitimate role to play in public life, and politics had no legitimate part to play in religious life. Religious belief was a matter of private conscience, not public morality, they argued, and just as the state had no right to regulate religious belief (or any other expression of private conscience), so personal religious belief had no place in the regulation of an impersonal, secular public sphere. Clergy should restrict themselves to the spiritual needs of their congregations and stay out of public life. Religious and political freedom required a sharp separation of church and state, an idea that received its classic formulation in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the touchstone of Republican religious policy in the 1790s. While Federalists tried to identify Republicans with Paine’s radical deism and French infidelity, Republicans insisted that their commitment to Jeffersonian ideas of religious freedom made them the true guardians of American Christianity. (p. 251)
This position, this moment, continues justifiably to be celebrated as a cornerstone of secularism. But set in the context of the attacks on Paine, we can appreciate something that was lost. Christianity as a valued and guarded set of beliefs was preserved. With religion removed from the secular sphere entirely in this vision of secularism, public challenges to religion based on reason and evidence came to be viewed as uncivil and unwelcome.

This led not fully to an age of reason but to some extent to an age of deference, in which religious belief was politely cordoned off and reason often treated as an intruder in the public sphere. In the Republican community, unity was preserved, but at the expense of muting more radical voices. And at the expense of…Paine.

“The shunning of Paine” (Jacoby, p. 36) went beyond the ultimate-fighting ring that was the late 18th-century press. He was snubbed by people in everyday life, including former friends. Jacoby reports:
In the early 1800s, the author of “Common Sense” – which had sold some 500,000 copies in the mid-1770s – would be castigated as a Judas, reptile, hog, mad dog, souse, louse, archbeast, brute, liar, and of course infidel. (pp. 35-6)**
This affected Paine personally, and resulted in a spiral of anger and mutual resentment. “The story of Paine’s last years in America is a painful one,” Jacoby writes. “Most of Paine’s old friends, embarrassed by his anti-Christian writings, deserted him – Jefferson once again being a notable exception” (p. 60). (Jefferson’s support came at a political cost to him.)
There is no doubt that the constant Federalist attacks on Paine, and his abandonment by many old friends, took a considerable emotional toll in his final years. Many of his writings in the press during this period were saturated with a bitterness and personal venom that he had once reserved for George III. (Jacoby, p. 63)
When Paine died in 1809, fewer than a dozen people attended his funeral.

*Speaking of whom, The Invention of Air is not a book I would recommend.

**It’s noteworthy how many of the insults to Paine, and how much of the political language in general in this era, was animal-based.

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