Paine Day, the Bible, and Motivating Histories

Seth Perry, Contributor

29 January 2018

Motivating histories are necessary but imperfect things. Imagined communities of people become such by participating in aspirational stories of a shared past. Partly because of the nature of academic inquiry and partly from a recognition that such stories are always incomplete, often dangerously so, those most qualified to construct motivating histories usually prefer not to. Using the past to inspire a desirable future requires committing to the present in ways that make academic historians uncomfortable. The complexity in which we deal more naturally tears down than it builds up. It is #historiansruineverything that trends on Twitter, not #historiansmakemedreamofabetterworld.

Nevertheless, there will be stories. Our communities don’t exist without them. If we are uncomfortable telling stories about the past worth building a future with, plenty of others who are less committed to liberal democratic principles feel no such discomfort. Lots of people have no qualms about stripping the past of its complexities and offering just-so stories by which their listeners might live together, while the more qualified and the more honest scowl, silent in their scruples.

The new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, is an exercise in the creation of a motivating just-so story that invites visitors to imagine that the Judeo-Christian Bible has been at the center of American history. If you start on the fourth floor, as visitors are instructed to, it takes a bit for the precise nature of the story to become clear. The fourth floor is a wide-ranging archaeological and philological story of the origins of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is pleasantly surprising – given the museum’s sponsorship by the conservative evangelicals who own Hobby Lobby, one might have expected a much flatter story about divine inspiration and the Providential Unfolding of God’s Word, not an acknowledgment of divergent manuscripts, canons, and translations.

Museum of the Bible – 2017-11 – Exterior.

CC BY-SA 4.0

When we visited, we skipped the much-discussed amusement park rides on the third floor – my understanding is that one of them involves a virtual flight over D.C.’s monuments in search of biblical references. On the second floor, however, the motivation for this heavenly flight becomes clear: the Bible, according to the museum curators, inspired the American idea. This Christian nationalist story is not at all surprising, given the predilections of the museum’s sponsors. In their history, what has made America America is the Founders’ reliance on biblical ideas and, well, the Providential Unfolding of God’s Word. This has obvious implications for the kind of future Americans should aspire to, aligning with the more or less virulent strains of contemporary conservative social politics. On the second floor it becomes awfully clear why they’d care to build a museum like this in the first place.

Lots of commentators have pointed out the problems with this story of American history (see here and here and here). In honor of Paine Day — Thomas Paine’s birthday, January 29th, marked as a holiday by freethinkers and infidels in the 19th century—I want to draw attention to the Museum’s brief but telling treatment of Paine by way of suggesting a better history.

A display case on the second floor shows copies of two of Paine’s most famous works. One of these is Common Sense, which Paine published in January of 1776 to excite Revolutionary fervor. Here, Paine went at the British monarchy and the notion of monarchy itself with a hammer, and that hammer was partly made of biblical citations. Paine cited from the historical parts of the Bible, mostly, to argue that “the Almighty hath [in scripture] entered his protest against Monarchial government (12). Naturally, the Museum display is eager to point this out. Indeed, so keen are they to claim Paine’s early work in their historical reconstruction that one of the video “Book Minutes” on the Museum’s web site is also devoted to Common Sense.

A display case on the second floor shows copies of two of Paine’s most famous works. One of these is Common Sense, which Paine published in January of 1776 to excite Revolutionary fervor. Here, Paine went at the British monarchy and the notion of monarchy itself with a hammer, and that hammer was partly made of biblical citations. Paine cited from the historical parts of the Bible, mostly, to argue that “the Almighty hath [in scripture] entered his protest against Monarchial government (12). Naturally, the Museum display is eager to point this out. Indeed, so keen are they to claim Paine’s early work in their historical reconstruction that one of the video “Book Minutes” on the Museum’s web site is also devoted to Common Sense.

The other Paine work in that display case, though, is The Age of Reason. In this text, twenty years after Common Sense, Paine took a hammer to the Bible itself. Summary line: “I have shewn…that the bible and testament are impositions and forgeries” (143). (I wrote more about The Age of Reason last Paine Day.) At the time of its publication, The Age of Reason was a problem for Christian nationalists. What were they to do with a revered patriot who ridicules the Bible? It seems they still don’t know. The Age of Reason isn’t mentioned in the Book Minute.

At the museum, the presentation of Paine’s two very different approaches to the Bible does a couple of things that serve the museum’s goals. On one hand, it undermines Paine as an American infidel hero by suggesting that he was a hypocrite. Paine is known for trashing the Bible in The Age of Reason, but, look! Before that “he cited the Bible to argue his case,” as the video says. On the other hand, Paine’s citation of the Bible in his Revolutionary texts underscores the ubiquitous importance of the Bible in the American founding: Common Sense, one of the most important goads to Revolutionary fervor, relied on biblical rhetoric, even though it was written by a guy who went on to try to tear the Bible down.

What I don’t think the museum’s curators understand is that highlighting Paine’s rhetorical use of the Bible opens onto a history of the Bible in America that is motivating to those of us who oppose their notion of Christian nationalism. Paine’s attitude toward the Bible didn’t change in the twenty years between Common Sense and The Age of Reason. As Eric Foner writes in his study of Paine, “John Adams told Paine he thought the Biblical reasoning in Common Sense was ridiculous” when it was first published. In response, “Paine laughed, ‘expressed a contempt of the Old Testament and indeed the Bible at large’ and announced his intention of one day publishing a work on religion” (81). The truth is that Paine wasn’t influenced by the Bible, but he was really good at using the Bible to advance a larger cause. References to the Bible aren’t really proof of ideological dependence. What the second floor of the Bible Museum shows is not that the Bible has always been important to Americans, but that Americans have always said that it was.

“Paine’s attempt, though, is part of an American tradition of committing to free inquiry, free speech, and freedom from arbitrary authorities.”

What are present in Paine’s writings are ideals about self-determination and freedom of thought that are part of a truer, better, and more inspirational story of the American past. The fact that Paine not only held these ideas without recourse to the Bible but specifically separated them from it should maybe give the Museum’s creators some pause, and the rest of us a place to stand.

So, in honor of his birthday, here’s a true story about an American patriot who offers a model for how Americans should conceive of and act in our current moment:

Thomas Paine knew that public opinion among everyday people in America would be crucial to the success of the Revolution. He was convinced that the Revolution was important and in the best interests of those everyday people. He was good at reading the public and an effing great writer, so he felt his way toward a style that would stir them to do something very, very dangerous and unlikely – putting at risk their everyday lives for some other possibility that might or might not turn out. As part of that effort, he made considerable reference to the Bible because it was a text that he knew many of them took to be authoritative (whether or not they really spent much time with it). He used the historical parts of the Bible, mostly, to show his readers that their book supported his view. He didn’t make any of this up, but he was good enough at it not to bring up the parts of their very self-contradictory book that didn’t go so well with his points. Paine rightly took this self-contradiction to be a fact of the book, not a fault of his own. His efforts paid off, and we – Americans – are better for it.

Twenty years after this moment, Paine used the same rhetorical skills to shake his readers from their deference to the same Bible he had made use of during the Revolution. This time, it didn’t work so well. His own attitude toward the Bible hadn’t changed, but many of his readers weren’t having it and a lot of loud conservative voices shouted him down. Paine’s attempt, though, is part of an American tradition of committing to free inquiry, free speech, and freedom from arbitrary authorities. Paine, that is, provides a model for composing motivating histories with what we have at hand while also being ready to say true things that will probably be unpopular, at least for a while.

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