Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Semi-Puritan Mind of Thomas Paine

There were two Americas in the beginning, as there were in the nineteenth century and as, if the 24-hour news networks are to be believed, there are now. The geography and principles have changed, but the split always exists. On the one hand, you had New England, founded by the Puritans not, as the history books told me in elementary school, for freedom of religion but for the freedom to practice their religion and to punish or banish all others. On the other, you had the mid-Atlantic states, beginning with Jamestown, Virginia, settled for financial reasons—if God was involved in the settlement at Jamestown, He had to share the space with gold and glory, as the old saying went.

(And yes, there were others—New York, settled by the Dutch as a fur-trading outpost and a center of American business ever since; Savannah, Georgia, originally founded as a refuge from English debtors prisons and the best laid-out city I’ve ever visited; St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America, or so the board of tourism says, founded by the Spanish while John Winthrop was just a gleam in his daddy’s eye. But it’s Massachusetts and Virginia, with Philadelphia in between but belonging mostly to the latter, that made the difference during this country’s infancy. Of the seven men labeled as the major Founding Fathers by Richard B. Morris, only two—John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, of New York City—and it wasn’t until Andrew Jackson in 1829 that we’d have a president from anywhere other than Massachusetts or Virginia.)

And yet these two Americans were not as separate as it might appear, in that the Puritan worldview—stripped, to some extent, of its religious baggage—filtered its way down to Philadelphia and Virginia. In his book The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch notes that the two baseline principles of “Yankee” America, “multidenominational religion and the sacral view of free-enterprise economics” were natural heirs of Puritanism:
Both these developments were rooted in the heterodox tenets established a century before: the moral distinction between the Old World and the New (as between Egypt and Canaan), the chosen people whose special calling entailed special trials, and above all a mythic view of history that extended New England’s past into an apocalypse which stood “near, even at the door,” requiring one last great act, one more climactic pouring out of the spirit, in order to realize itself.
Bercovitch’s analysis explains something puzzling at the heart of the political tracts put out by Deists at the time of the American Revolution. How could a group of people who didn’t believe in God’s providence still see America as, in Winthrop’s famous words, “a city on a hill”? For there can be little doubt that this is how our Founding Fathers saw their country.

Let’s take the instructive example of Thomas Paine, the Deist or atheist (the debate rages on) who coined the phrase “The United States of America” and who wrote the wildly popular anonymous tract Common Sense a mere six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Very early on, he makes the bold statement that “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” Leaving aside the truth or falsity of this statement for now, we can safely say that it is an early, though probably not the earliest, instance of secular American exceptionalism. Paine may use the language of the Puritans, but he’s not claiming that it will be the avenue to lead all of the elect to Christ and thus bring on the tribulation and the millennium. Rather, it is America’s secular government that will serve as the Great Example for the rest of the world.

But Paine’s very secular purpose relies on the Bible for much of its argument. A Deist, he did not believe in the accuracy of the Bible, but he nevertheless appeals to its authority, spending several pages conducting what amounts to a Puritan-style exegetical and political sermon. Problem is, his exegesis is lousy: “In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.” Such a statement is true only if one considers Moses, Joshua, and the Judges to be kings—war very clearly predates kingship in the Hebrew Bible.

But Paine has to use the scriptures to make his point precisely because of the remnants of the Puritan legacy in America—our New England forefathers always viewed themselves as a sort of new Israel, whose success was guaranteed because of biblical prophecies that predicted the maintenance and triumph of the faithful remnant. (This was not a metaphor for the American Puritans; they saw themselves speaking literal truth when they equated ancient Israel with seventeenth-century America.) So Paine’s use of the scriptures has a specific historical purpose, and, as Bercovitch notes, it marks a turning point when Puritan rhetoric became distinctly secular.

I am more interested in the present-day effects of Paine’s rhetoric, however. I argued in episode three of The Christian Humanist that America is not and never has been a “Christian nation” in the sense that the Christian right asserts that it was. My co-host David Grubbs quite rightly brought up the religious language of our (mostly secular) Founding Fathers, and if he agreed with me that the Christian right misreads the facts, he insisted that they have a leg to stand on.

Fair enough, and now we understand why. You’d have to flash forward 225 years from Tom Paine to Karl Rove to find a nonbeliever so cynically willing to use religious language to persuade religious believers to adopt a political viewpoint, and, as with Rove, it worked for Paine. The Revolution was conducted, if not on religious grounds, at least using religious language, even though Paine, Jefferson, Madison, et al, had no real intention of making the United States a “Christian nation.”

And yet it backfired. Every time a Christian conservative appeals to the mythic past of those religious founding fathers (you simply must watch this video, for example, which must have required more time and effort to upload to YouTube than to research and write), they are seizing on an intentional ambiguity in the writings of men like Thomas Paine. Use religious language when you don’t wish to adopt that religion, and you end up with generations of people who can’t tell your real views.

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