A reader sent me a link to this discussion between Sean Hannity and a guest about the decline of the Christian right (what decline? You got me). They offer all the usual blather about how society can’t exist if the people are immoral and the people can only be moral if they’re Christian. And in the middle of all this, Hannity actually invokes — of all people — Thomas Paine!
“I think any good society…I’ll go back go Thomas Paine in 1776…but for the guides and dictates of conscience, that if they were irresistibly obeyed there wouldn’t even be a need for government…he says no other lawmaker, is the phrase that he uses…so any good, successful society is predicated on a moral people.”
Of course, he misquotes and completely misses the point of what Paine said in Common Sense. Here’s the full passage:
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
He skips over the necessity that the impulses of conscience be clear and uniform, something they are obviously not. What is clearly a matter of conscience for one man may be the opposite for another. To Hannity and his ilk it is immoral to be gay; to me, it is immoral to discriminate against someone for being gay.
Hannity does here what the religious right always does, takes a quote from the founding fathers about the importance of morality and then equates morality with Christianity. But since Paine was a bitter enemy of Christianity, that can obviously not be the source for the dictates of conscience that he is referring to.
It’s true that Washington and Adams believed that religion was necessary for morality but they were also universalists who believed that any religion would do. Jefferson rejected completely the notion that morality depended on religion, writing to Thomas Law:
If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God.
And he famously told his nephew, Peter Carr:
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blind-folded fear. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences…. If it end in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others it will procure for you.