Politics and the Church – A Detour Down an Estuary [Part 2]

Throughout history, those who hate God have joined forces with one another to oppose God, His Son, and His people.  This worldview conflict between the two sides is ancient, but the question of which side will succeed at any given time here on earth is determined by the people.  If they preserve a love for God and His things, the secular anti-God forces will not prevail.  If those who love God become apathetic, lethargic, and uninvolved, the opposing forces will triumph…which is what is unfortunately occurring in America today.  Polling repeatedly affirms that public approval for religious expressions such as prayer at school events or political gatherings, displays of the Ten Commandments or other religious documents, preservation of the National Motto and “under God” in the Pledge, teaching creation in public schools, etc., is consistently at seventy percent support or above.  Yet in each of these areas, the secularists and God-haters are prevailing in public policy.  This is not because they are in greater numbers but rather because the seventy percent sits by, shakes its head, and does nothing, while the opposition remains active.  Where are our churches in the political activity?  Jesus pointed out in Matthew 13:25, when good men go to sleep, the enemy comes in and wreaks havoc.  Have the congregations gotten too comfortable within the confines of their buildings?

During the Founding Era, individuals such as Thomas Paine were vocal in expressing the hostility toward Christianity that has now become commonplace.  The Founders recognized that a trip down this estuary would lead the nation to ruin.  The difference today is that when such rhetoric occurred two centuries ago, the people rose up to ensure that Paine’s sentiment remained the exception rather than the rule.  The public reaction to Paine’s attack against religion in general and Christianity in particular is instructive.

When Paine sent a copy of his views on religion to Benjamin Franklin to solicit his thoughts…Franklin is ‘advertised’ to be one, if not the most’, least religious of our founders.  Here is his response:

I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it.  At present I shall only give you my opinion that the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium (hate) drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others.  He that spits into the wind, spits in his own face.  But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it?  Think how great a portion of mankind have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue.  I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person. [Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks, Tappen, Whittmore and Mason, 1840, Vol. X, pgs. 281-282, to Thomas Paine in 1790]

Paine ignored Franklin’s advice and went ahead and published his book, The Age of Reason.  He was promptly and resoundingly condemned by prominent Founders. 

     Samuel Adams wrote Paine a stiff rebuke: When I heard you had turned your mind to a defense on infidelity, I felt myself astonished, and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States.  The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their “first love” {Revelation 2:4}.  Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unChristianize the mass of our citizens?  Or have you the hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause? [ William Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, Little, Brown, and Company, 1865, Vol III, pgs. 372-373, to Thomas Paine on November 30, 1802]

John Adams similarly denounced Paine, declaring: The Christian religion is, above all religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the blackguard ( scoundrel, rogue) Paine say what he will. [ John Adams, The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Charles Little & James Brown, 1851, Vol. III, p. 421, diary entry for July 26, 1796]

When Constitution signer, revolutionary general, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Paterson learned that some Americans seemed to agree with Paine, he thundered: Infatuated Americans!  Why renounce your country, your religion, and your God?  Oh shame, where is thy blush?  Is this the way to continue independent and render the 4th of July immortal in memory and song? [ John O’Conner, William Patterson: Lawyer and Statesman, Rutgers University Press, 1979, p. 244, from a Fourth of July Oration in 1798].  Declaration signer Benjamin Rush called Paine’s work “absurd and impious” [Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. H. Butterfield, Princeton University Press, 1951, Vol. II, p.770, to John Dickinson on February 16, 1796]; Declaration signer Charles Carroll described it as “blasphemous writings against the Christian religion” [Joseph Gurn, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1932, p.203]; John Witherspoon announced that Paine was “ignorant of human nature as well as an enemy of the Christian faith” [John Witherspoon, The Works of Reverend John Witherspoon, William W. Woodard, 1802, Vol. III, p. 24, n. 2, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men”, May 17, 1776]; John Quincy Adams declared that “Mr. Paine has departed altogether from the principles of the Revolution” [John Quincy Adams, An Answer to Pain’s “Rights of Man”, London, John Stockdale, 1793, p. 13]; and Elias Boudinot, president of Congress, published the Age of Revelation…a full-length theological rebuttal to Paine’s work.[Elias Boudinot, The Age of Revelation, Or the Age of Reason Shewn to Be an Age of Infidelity, Asbury Dickins, 1801].  Patrick Henry also wrote a refutation of what he described as “the puny efforts of Paine” [S.G. Arnold, The Life of Patrick Henry of Virginia, Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1854, p. 250, to his daughter Betsy on August 20, 1796]; but after reading Bishop Richard Watson’s Apology for the Bible specifically written against Paine, Henry deemed that work sufficient and decided not to publish his reply. [George Morgan, Patrick Henry, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1929, p. 366, and Bishop William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1857, Vol. II, p.12].  These are just a few examples to show that Paine’s anti-religious views were strongly rejected and loudly denounced by Americans.  In fact, public opposition to Paine was so vehement that he spent his last years in New York as ‘an outcast’ in ‘social ostracism’, eventually being buried in a cow pasture because no American cemetery would accept his remains.[Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934, Vol. XIV, s.v. “Thomas Paine”].

So how did America move to an opposite position in just two centuries?  The answer might be found in the Bible axiom that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough”…1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9…this is, if diligence is not practiced, little things ignored can grow into big problems (this has been pointed out numerous times over the past many months in these weekly e-mails).  As decades passed after the Founding Era, the strong public denunciations of the type of anti-God sentiments expressed by Paine gradually began to lessen, thus encouraging the rise of a well-organized secularist movement in America.  Next week we will take a look at how some of this may have happened. Was our ‘bridge crew’ asleep at the helm as we slowly and at times painlessly worked our way into ‘shoal waters’?

– Bob Munsey

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