The National Catholic Review

Christopher Hitchens, an atheist and best-selling author, has provided a political sequel to his popular a-theological work God Is Not Great. Gadflies such as Hitchens often try to attach themselves to past luminaries to bolster their causes. In this case, the author has fastened onto Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the great pamphleteer of the American Revolution.

Someone like Hitchens, who believes that “religion poisons everything” and who seeks to remove its influence from the public sphere, could hardly have chosen better. In the famous pamphlet “Common Sense” (1775), Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin to make the world over again,” a line that energized American resistance to British rule and has inspired countless revolutions and reform movements ever since.

Implicit in Paine’s words is a justification for endless political improvisation. This idea was extremely problematic from the outset. For instance, it threw into question numerous church-state arrangements existing in the states of Europe. And it completely eliminated any role for organized religion (with its revealed truths) in the focus of government policy or the guiding of public order upon which these governments were built.

Paine was in the English radical tradition that was suspicious of all authority and quick to disparage all forms of hierarchy. Religion and monarchy, therefore, were both targets of his polemic. He saw in the two institutions a symbiotic relationship that suppressed human freedom, which is ordained by the laws of nature and behind which is, in Jefferson’s words, “Nature’s God.” Paine held that governments come “out of the people” and can therefore be designed according to their needs and wants. He was an early proponent, for example, of the welfare state. He believed that government had an obligation to provide its citizens such benefits as “cradle-to-grave” health care and a one-time stipend of money to get them started in life. To fund these emoluments he called for a graduated income tax and a death tax.

Regarding the monarchy, Hitchens says that “Paine directly anticipates Thomas Jefferson’s wording of the later Declaration of Independence, with its pursuit of happiness, [and] its itemization of a long train of abuses and usurpations” attributed to King George III. Paine’s distrust of religion is made obvious by his participation in the French Revolution, which desired to overthrow Christianity in favor of the goddess “Reason.”

In Paine’s Rights of Man Hitchens sees “dual purpose of subverting organized religion and asserting deism.” That 1791 volume was written as a reply to Edmund Burke (1729-97), a conservative member of the English Parliament who had an attachment to Catholicism. Burke defended tradition, property and heredity, all of which, Paine contended, were promoted by the relationship between church and state. While Paine was never, per se, a sectarian in his religious antipathies, he did especially decry the hierarchically structured cosmology advanced by Roman Catholicism. The following passage from Paine reflects this:

 

It is not among the least of evils of the present existing government in all parts of Europe, that man, considered as man, is thrown back to a vast distance from his Maker, and the artificial chasm filled up by a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which he has to pass. I will quote Mr. Burke’s catalogue of barriers that he has set up between man and his Maker. Putting himself in the character of a herald, he says: “We fear God—we look with awe to kings—with affection to parliaments—with duty to magistrates—with reverence to priests, and respect to nobility.” Mr. Burke has forgotten to put in “chivalry.” He has also forgotten to put in Peter.

 

Paine, however, was aghast at the atrocities committed by Robespierre (1758-94) during the Reign of Terror (1793-94), especially when he was imprisoned and nearly lost his own head. In light of this, he therefore acquiesced to the utility of religion, if only to maintain a moral order. Nevertheless, he was an early promoter of what is referred to as the “naked public square.” He called for a government much akin to that proposed by those who today demand “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Paine was a deist. Deism is a philosophy that derives the existence and nature of God from reason. Knowledge of God then presents humans with a knowledge of themselves and their requisite duties and responsibilities. According to this philosophy, the affairs of men and women are not God’s concern. Hitchens seems to suggest that Paine would have been an atheist, were it fashionable and safe at the time, and credits Paine with helping pave the way for other “emancipators of humanity.” He writes:

 

8 June 1809, Thomas Paine dies. On 12 February of the same year, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln had been born. These two emancipators of humanity— Darwin the greatest —were in different ways to complete and round off the arguments that Paine had helped to begin.

 

This comment is indicative of Hitchens’s anti-God agenda. In the end it also shows how selectively Hitchens takes Paine’s words and then interprets them to fit his thesis. No doubt Paine was a radical Enlightenment thinker, but certainly not as radical as Hitchens presents him to be in this volume. Letting Paine speak for himself, by reading Rights of Man first, will certainly help temper Hitchens’s interpretation. On the other hand, reading both works will clarify for the reader the genesis of the politico-liberal philosophy regarding the separation of church and state that became rampant in 19th-century Europe.

For Hitchens, Paine is a hero whose words were and are powerful motivators for human emancipation and creativity. Paine undoubtedly influenced Jefferson. But he also worried Washington, Adams and Gouverneur Morris, as he should worry most contemporary Americans who consider themselves religious and rely on religious faith to guide their leaders. In fact, the founders never really embraced Paine as one of their own. They all recognized his usefulness for the cause of emancipation from England; but for the most part they kept their distance from him.

Some contemporary commentators believe that Paine’s thought came to fruition not in the American Revolution (1776), nor in the quickly aborted ideals of the French Revolution (1789), but 200 years later in the proposed European Constitution, which, as of now, refuses even to recognize the role of Christianity in the founding of Western European civilization. Hitchens must be delighted.

The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich.