Opinion

Erasing Our Nation’s Biblical History

As I mentioned in a previous article, Katherine Franke, who also serves as the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University, “claimed that conservatives’ belief in ‘natural law’ is leading to a ‘radical theocratization of the Constitution.’” Not only did our nation’s constitutional founders believe in Natural Law, but many of them believed that the Bible offered guidance on the basics of governance.

The claim has also been made that deism was the prevailing theological worldview during the constitutional era. Deism is a philosophical belief system that claims that God exists but is not involved in the world. While God created all things and set the universe in motion, He no longer oversees its operation. Given this definition of deism, which of the founding fathers were deists? Which documents express the fundamental tenets of deism? Official congressional and presidential documents, written before and after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, mention Jesus Christ, sin, the need for forgiveness, and the justice of God. These are neither Natural Law nor deistic proclamations.

For example, Pres. George Washington, at the request of Congress, called for a day of “General Thanksgiving” where the Providence of Almighty God would be recognized and the duty to “obey his will.” The Proclamation was called for soon after the drafting of the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.

With all the historical evidence to the contrary, it’s Thomas Paine who is singled out by historical revisionists as America’s true philosophical founder. Can this be proven? Paine’s Common Sense put forth arguments for independence from Great Britain, but how did he argue his case? What were his sources? Did he follow deistic lines of argumentation like those of the French revolutionaries? “He constructed his arguments from materials that were familiar to the average colonist, favoring allusions to popular history, nature, and scripture rather than Montesquieu, Tacitus, and Cicero.”1

J. Ayer remarks that “the first argument that Paine brings against the institution of kingship is scriptural.”2 Ayer remarks that Paine’s appeal to the Old Testament is curious “in view of the want of respect he was later to show for the Old Testament” (Ayer, Thomas Paine, 40). Paine declared that “government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from which the children of Israel copied the custom…. As the exalting of one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. All anti-monarchical parts of scripture have been smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form. ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’ is the scriptural doctrine of courts, yet it is no support of monarchical government, for the Jews at that time were without a king, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.”

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Paine has an extended discussion of Judges 8:22-23 where he describes “the King of Heaven” to be Israel’s “proper sovereign.” He then spends several pages quoting, discussing, and making application of the importance of 1 Samuel 8 to the then modern situation. He concludes this section of Common Sense with these words: “In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) by the world in blood and ashes. ’Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”

It’s the later Paine, the post-Constitution Paine and the author of The Age of Reason, that secularists turn to in support of their claim that he was a deist and an ardent critic of Christianity and organized religion in general. While Common Sense was written in 1776, The Age of Reason was published in three parts in 1794, 1795, and 1807, well after the drafting of the Constitution in 1787. While Americans in general embraced Common Sense — “fifty-six editions had been printed and 150,000 copies sold by the end of 1776”3 — there was no support for The Age of Reason by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin:

As for the supposition that the other Founders embraced “The Age of Reason” or its mindset: Jefferson advised Paine never to publish the book. Benjamin Franklin, Paine’s patron and friend, gave his protégé the same advice. After reading a draft, Franklin noted: “He who spits against the wind spits in his own face. If men are wicked with religion, what would they be without it?”

* * * * *

 John Adams, once a fan of Paines, having received his copy, called Paine a “blackguard”4 who wrote out of the depths of “a malignant heart.” And Washington, previously one of Paine’s fiercest advocates, attacked Paine’s principles in his Farewell Address (without referring to his name)5 as unpatriotic and subversive.6

America's Christian History: The Untold StoryPaine’s later views were so opposed by the public that he spent his last years in New York in relative obscurity. “Paine had expressed a wish to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, but the Society of Friends denied his request. In attendance at his graveside on his farm were his Quaker friend Wilbert Hicks, “Madame Bonneville, her son Benjamin, and two black men who wished to pay tribute to Paine for his efforts to put an end to slavery. It is probable that a few other persons were there but no one who officially represented either France or the United States.”7 Stokes and Pfeffer, writing in Church and State in the United States, state that “For a long time Paine, notwithstanding his great contributions to the Revolutionary cause, was held low in American public opinion.”8

Theodore Roosevelt’s description of Thomas Paine “as a ‘filthy little atheist’ represented all too accurately the public estimate”9 of him at the time. Although Paine was not an atheist — he believed in God and immortality — some of his religious views in The Age of Reason were unorthodox. But this did not stop him from borrowing his morality from the Bible:

  • “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 religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy [Micah 6:8] and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

The Thomas Paine of Common Sense and the Thomas Paine of The Age of Reason must be kept separate, both by time and philosophy. The later Paine cannot be superimposed on the earlier Paine. Without Paine’s biblical arguments in Common Sense the book would have been studied with great suspicion and might have sunk without a trace. Mark A. Noll, Research Professor of History at Regent College, makes a similar argument:

If Paine’s Age of Reason (with its dismissive attitude toward the Old Testament) had been published before Common Sense (with its full deployment of Scripture in support of republican freedom), the quarrel with Britain may have taken a different course. It is also likely that the allegiance of traditional Christian believers to republican liberty might not have been so thoroughly cemented. And it is possible that the intimate relation between republican reasoning and trust in traditional Scripture, which became so important after the turn of the new century, would not have occurred as it did.10

This very brief analysis of America’s religious history shows that neither Deism nor atheism were foundational to our nation’s origin. Any full-fledged movement in either direction will lead to a national disaster where we “shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages.”11

  1. Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to American Independence (Philadelphia Press, 2003), 20. []
  2. A.J. Ayer, Thomas Paine (New York: Atheneum, 1988), 40. []
  3. Ayer, Thomas Paine, 35. []
  4. “The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern Times, the Religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel] Paine say what he will; it is Resignation to God, it is Goodness itself to Man.” (John Adams, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield [Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962], 3:233–234). []
  5. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion….. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle.” []
  6. Steve Farrell, “Paine’s Christianity”—Part 1. []
  7. Ayer, Thomas Paine, 180. []
  8. Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, one-volume ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964), 50. []
  9. Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, 50. []
  10. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84. []
  11. Benjamin Franklin, “Motion for Prayers in the Convention,” The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. John Bigelow (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Knickerbocker Press, 1904), 2:377-378. []
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