In 1795, just before being tossed into a French prison for not supporting the execution of Louis the XVI, Thomas Paine wrote the book that would be his downfall.
The Age of Reason was a critical look at The Bible and The Church, chronicling the contradictions inherent in both over many a thee and thou. This was so controversial at the time that Paine’s reputation would never recover from its publication. That he was also critical of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionary icons for their failure to abolish slavery made sure that Paine’s role in our nation’s founding was all but erased from the history books.
Paine’s position was that Creation is the only immutable Word of God and no book could ever fill that function put the final nail in his coffin. His many critics have called Paine an atheist, but he had a deep and abiding belief in God. It was his utter disdain for religion, an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture and a demanding way with words that would be his ultimate fall from grace in the eyes of the revolutionary generation. A man who was raised a Quaker and reared as a Revolutionary would be scorned as a Heretic and Traitor.
Thomas Paine should be our most celebrated author and philosopher, yet he died a penniless pauper on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in New York City, abandonded by both friends and country.
I find it sadly ironic that we debate his very sensible ideas even today. Religion remains the one ignoble trait that man can’t seem to shake. Like government. That’s not to say that spirituality isn’t worthwhile. Or government for that matter. We simply pursue those very sensible ideas using questionable means for ill-defined ends. We enter the world with an innate ability to recognize the divine in each other and in society yet invest that supreme obligation in the first person who sounds as if they have it all figured out, no matter how crazy their stories may be at first glance.
I don’t pretend to understand what it means to be born again, either spiritually or politically, but I think it is far past time many Americans better understood the term for its essential meaning and voted accordingly.