The Founding Father We’d Do Well to Find Once Again

Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

“Thomas Paine Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations” by Craig Nelson

Thomas Paine and Roger Williams are the two founding fathers whose work is most often forgotten yet remains among the most consequential today.  My belief was strengthened upon reading Craig Nelson’s excellent 2006 biography, Thomas Paine:  Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.

Paine, born in England and truly a citizen of the Enlightenment world, wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible.  His Common Sense has long been recognized as a key work in changing the hearts and minds of the people of the United Colonies into citizens of what Paine was the first to characterize as the United States.  Similarly, his Rights of Man helped shape the French Revolution and — although it would take more than a century — inspire constitutional reform in Great Britain and foreshadow Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Age of Reason, a forceful call against organized religion, finds Paine sticking to his Enlightenment and deist values even at the expense of his public reputation. Paine’s mind was clearly a force of nature, and Nelson characterizes him as “the Enlightenment Mercury who sparked political common cause between men who worked for a living and empowered aristocrats across all three nations.”

One of Nelson’s great accomplishments is to explain Enlightenment thinking and values in a way which places Paine and his work in a well-constructed context.  Paine certainly has his flaws as a person, but he is more easily understood when placed within the value system that drove so many of the leading philosophers and political leaders of the late eighteenth century. Nelson’s other important accomplishment is to showcase Paine’s incredible relevance today.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776, resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. Nelson certainly recognizes the challenge when he notes that the coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams—Alexander Hamilton, ruling class of the rich, style of government.  “While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors—Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”

In his Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, author Lewis H Lapham includes the essay The World in Time which makes this point even more forcefully.  Lapham turns to Paine and doesn’t find himself

“in the presence of a marble portrait bust,” but meets instead a man “writing in what he knew to be ‘the undisguised language of the historical truth.’ To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in words simple enough to be readily understood.”

Instead of addressing the rich, as do many of the other Founding Fathers, Paine “talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism—’Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.'”

Thomas Paine, in both Nelson and Lapham’s rendering, has “remained in the attic of oblivion” due to the publication of The Age of Reason and the subsequent attacks—over the next two hundred years—that placed him clearly outside this country’s obsession with religion.  Lapham notes that “Paine’s plain and forthright speaking is out of tune with our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.”

As we struggle through constitutional crises, we would do well to find one of our most important founding fathers.  Paine’s writing might be the tonic to point us back towards democracy.

More to come…


Religious Liberty and the Founding Myths

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, RI – where religious liberty and the separation of church and state was born

Growing up Baptist, I was schooled by my father of the dangers of having the government involved in religious life.  A New Deal Democrat and a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, Daddy was a proud “Roger Williams” Baptist. So when Andrew attended Brown University in Providence, Candice and I made sure to stop at the Roger Williams National Memorial – administered by the National Park Service – where I picked up a copy of John Barry’s Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul and sent it to my father.

Last year I began hearing Kevin Kruse, the Princeton historian and author of One Nation Under God:  How Corporate America Invented Christian America interviewed on NPR and other outlets. Intrigued, I bought that book for my father as well, thinking it would strike a chord.

We talked about both works before Daddy passed away, and I wrote a piece on this blog last year about how old places can help us understand the battles for religious freedom.  When I brought both books home from his library earlier this year, I made the decision I wanted to read them back-to-back.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry

I began with Barry’s 2012 study of Williams, one of the least understood of the founders of colonial America.  The first portion of the book focuses on the religious turmoil in England, which shaped Williams as well as the Puritans who traveled to America for religious freedom. But as Barry makes clear, the religious freedom envisioned by the Puritans only included those who worshiped according to their dictates.  Williams’ growing understanding of the need for liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state came about due to his close involvement with some of the leading post-Reformationist thinkers and leaders in England, as well as his first-hand observations from colonial America.

Barry’s book is full of surprises for those who have not studied this period of history in-depth.  I had always assumed that Williams was a devout Baptist once he moved to what became Rhode Island, but Barry notes that he moved among religious groups and could more accurately be described as a seeker.  Williams’ engagement with the Native Americans he found in the colonies was well ahead of his time (by several centuries), and led one reviewer to lament that Barry had not covered more of that story.  The intrigue between Boston, Salem, Plymouth, Providence, and London – with Williams often in the center of controversy – is well documented by Barry, a talented writer who usually focuses on 20th century topics.  (I especially enjoyed his Rising Tide about the great Mississippi flood of 1927.)

Barry’s Afterword sums up the remarkable man who was Roger Williams:

“Roger Williams was not a man out of time.  He belonged to the seventeenth century, and to Puritans in that century.  Yet he was also one of the most remarkable men of his century.

With absolute faith in the Bible, with absolute faith in his own interpretation of it, he nonetheless believed it “monstrous” to compel another person to believe what he or anyone else believed, or to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s belief.  His enemies called him a “firebrand.”…They feared being challenged, and having their word, under challenge, disintegrate.  They feared the chaos of freedom, and they feared the loneliness of it.

Williams embraced all that.  Freedom, he believed, was worth it, worth his life and worth far more than his life…For of all the remarkable things he said, the most remarkable was this: ‘Having bought Truth deare, we must not sell it cheape, nor the least graine of it for the whole World, no not for the saving of Soules, through our owne most precious.’

For he knew that to believe in freedom and liberty required faith in the freedom of thought, of conscience.  And that was soul liberty.”

One Nation Under God

One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse

I have often thought of the troubles we encounter in America when we try to compel others to believe as we do.  Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God:  How Corporate American Invented Christian America, is a recent piece of scholarship that looks into the obliteration of the separation of church and state – at, surprisingly, the hands of anti-New Deal corporate CEOs.

This is another book full of surprises, and although not as well received as Barry’s book, that may be due to the more controversial subject matter.  Having lived through the culture and school prayer wars of the 1960s up until today, I was certainly aware of how the so-called “Christian right” worked to wrap itself in God and country.  What was more of a revelation was the support for this work stretching back to the 1930s from a broad group of corporate executives out to wreck Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms.  Eisenhower’s role in the shift in American public opinion towards a more public religion, was also something of a revelation.

Neither work is perfect, but both are worth reading, especially in light of the ongoing battles in 2016 over the nature of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  I suspect if he were alive and active today, Roger Williams would be able to discern the charlatans among our midst, and the perils we face in limiting the rights of those not like us.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

More to come…



Religious Freedom 101: A Lesson from Old Places

The First Baptist Church

A reminder from The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

We are hearing a great deal these days about religious freedom. Much of it comes from individuals who appear – from their comments – to know little of our country’s history.  For the past three days, I’ve been immersed in a state where all Americans would be well advised to come for a class on Religious Freedom 101.

One of the truly misunderstood stories in American history is that of Rhode Island and the establishment of religious freedom. My father – that lonely breed of Southern Christian liberal – has spent the past decade or more writing letters to the editor that remind his fellow church-goers of the importance of the separation of church and state. For my part, I’ve been in Providence and Newport this week, and took the time to visit two of the landmarks of the nation’s move to ensure that all had religious freedom, including the right not to worship.

Friday, I was in Newport for a series of meetings that began at Touro Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark and an affiliate site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Standing as a landmark to religious freedom for all Americans, Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building in the United States.  As described on the National Trust website:

A structure of exquisite beauty and design, steeped in history and ideals, the synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.

The congregation was founded in 1658 by the descendants of Jewish families who had fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal and who themselves left the Caribbean seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered.

Touro Synagogue

Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

By the time those families came to Rhode Island, the “lively experiment” that was Rhode Island was already underway.  An exhibit in the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Visitor’s Center (and captured on the website) explains it best:

Rhode Island’s experience was a catalyst to the development of these values (that the acceptance of the separation of church and state was a uniquely American value).  Under the terms of its founding Charter, Rhode Island stood alone among the colonies in its desire to “hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil State may stand and best be maintained, with a full liberty of religious concernments.”

Roger Williams and his followers were convinced that religion was a matter of conscience between an individual and his God, not the government. The founding documents for Providence, Rhode Island indicate a clear division between the public, civil realm and the private world of belief:

We, whose names are here under, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major assent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town-fellowship, and such others whom they shall admit unto them, only in civil things.

“Only in civil things.” This phrase, assumed to be from the pen of Roger Williams himself, establishes the principal of religious liberty that was to become the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the Rhode Island Colony, only matters of civil interest were to be considered by the town-fellowship. Matters of theology, doctrine, and religious practice were to be considered apart from the realm of civic discourse and within the confines of the individual consciousness or “soul-thought.”

The Charter of the Rhode Island Colony, negotiated in 1663 by Newport founder John Clark on behalf of the Rhode Island colonists from King Charles II of England, clearly demonstrates that religious freedom was the prime reason for the colony’s existence. Rhode Island’s Charter, which served as state constitution until 1842, includes this unique provision:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others.

Touro’s unique place in American history came about in 1790, when in response to a letter from the congregation, President George Washington eloquently defined the new nation’s standard for religious freedom and civil liberties. He declared that America would…“give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Providence – where I spent the rest of the trip – is a city that celebrates its religious history.  Few communities carry off having a “Steeple Street” with the history that Providence does.  (It is even obvious in the city’s name!)

Steeple Street

Steeple Street, Providence

The most important of those houses of worship, from a historical standpoint, is The First Baptist Church, Providence.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Note that I didn’t write “the First Baptist Church in Providence.”  No, this is THE FIRST Baptist Church IN AMERICA. 

Historical Marker

Historical Marker on The First Baptist Church, Providence,

Coupled with the Roger Williams National Memorial, managed by the National Park Service, The First Baptist Church tells an important story that is as fresh as today’s headlines.  I’ve given a couple of speeches recently that focus on the relevance of historic places today.  Here’s what I said in the most recent one:

When we change our focus (in preservation, from buildings) to people, we become serious about relevance. In many of the places we save, and in the way we approach their conservation, we often talk about the “period of significance.” But at the National Trust we are turning that on its head, and asking, “What if the period of significance is now?”

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, where Abraham Lincoln conceived the Emancipation Proclamation, understanding that “the period of significance is now” leads us to use of the site as the springboard for exhibits, lectures, and projects that address human trafficking in the 21st century. Slavery, unfortunately, didn’t end in 1865.

Old places can be eloquent in  helping us think about how the lessons of the past inform us about today’s issues…whether those issues be human trafficking (Lincoln’s Cottage), immigration (The Lower East Side Tenement Museum), labor relations and income inequality (Pullman), or religious liberty (Touro Synagogue and The First Baptist Church).

Visit a historic site, and connect the past with today’s big issues.

More to come…