This week in our special series on the Founding Fathers, we begin with the revolutionary Thomas Paine, a statesman who often was ostracized for his SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) views on Christianity, God, and religion. Like a true Progressive Christian, Paine tried to encourage forward progress in all aspects of the individual life and the life of the nation. His work The Rights of Man remains a testament to his enlightened perspective on the nature of public rights versus those of a government, while his famous pamphlet Common Sense reminds us still today, to our chagrin, how uncommon “common sense” truly is.
The following passage comes from “To The People of England” included in The Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume I. Here we find Paine discussing one of his favorite topics, national honor, from the simple perspective of common decency. As is so often the case with the writings of the Founding Fathers, Paine’s commentary remains as relevant today as when it was written>
There is an idea that exists in the world known as national honor, and this, falsely understood, is often times the cause of war. In a Christian and philosophical sense, mankind seems to have stood still at individual civilization, and to retain as nations all the original rudeness of nature. Peace by treaty is only a cessation of violence for a reformation of sentiment. It is a substitute for a principle that is wanting and ever will be wanting till the idea of national honor be rightly understood. As individuals we profess ourselves Christians, but as nations we are heathens, Romans, and what not.
I remember the late admiral Saunders declaring in the House of Commons, and that in the time of peace, “That the city of Madrid laid to ashes was not a sufficient atonement for the Spaniards taking off the rudder of an English sloop of war.” I do not ask whether this is Christianity or morality, I ask whether it is decency? Whether it is proper language for a nation to use? In private life we call it by the plain name of bullying, and the elevation of rank cannot alter its character. It is, I think, exceedingly easy to define what ought to be understood by national honor, and that is this:
What is the best character for an individual is the best character for a nation; and wherever the latter exceeds or falls beneath the former, there is a departure from the line of true greatness.1
Read the next article in our series on the Founding Fathers: Patrick Henry & The Christian Divide.
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- Some small edits were made in the above passage from Thomas Paine to make it easier to read by modern readers. [↩]
The old saying “there is nothing common about common sense” has never rung so true as it does today. We live in a course and relativist age where the noble drive for fairness and balance has been misdirected toward conflating opinions with facts, and where common sense lies buried beneath a rubble of truthiness. That being the case, it might be a good idea to return to the writer of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, for a little refresher on reasonable thinking.
Wrongly accused of atheism by the orthodox Christians of his time (and, later on, a strident Teddy Roosevelt), Thomas Paine is among the many American figures who form the bedrock upon which currenthas its house. With regards to an afterlife, Paine held the reasonable position that we can hope for happiness after this life but shouldn’t presume to guess what lies in store for us:
I consider myself in the hands of my Creator and that He will dispose of me after this life consistent with His justice and goodness. I leave all these matters to Him, as my Creator and friend and I hold it presumptuous to make an article of faith as to what the Creator will do with us hereafter.
It was by leaving the afterlife to God, and the dead to bury their dead1, that Thomas Paine was able to follow Christ, carrying the kingdom of God within himself, to fulfill the living hour of his time.
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- To another man Jesus said: “Follow me.” “Let me first go and bury my father,” said the man. But Jesus said: “Leave the dead to bury their dead; but go yourself and carry far and wide the gospel of the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:59-60 [↩]