Thomas Paine’s use of the Bible was at the heart of his incendiary critique of the political powers of his day.
It goes, in summary, like this: The Bible denounces monarchy, and it’s no wonder because the monarchy is rotten so let’s start a revolution.
Paine’s “Common Sense” has received a renewed interest in the last decade; it provides a sort of rhetorical Molotov cocktail to hurl against the “swamp” in Washington, D.C.
Need a good rhetorical sledgehammer to wield against the powerful? Thomas Paine is a good place to get gunned up.
And, as I argued previously, the use of such arguments can in fact be quite helpful.
But Paine is a cheater. He’s wily enough to know how to use the Bible for his rhetorical purposes, but he has no interest in submitting to the teachings of the Bible.
He has no interest in finding any beauty or truth or goodness in the great Christian tradition or any other. “My own mind is my own church,” he says.
Indeed, institutionalized “churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit,” Paine asserts in “The Age of Reason.”
Partnerships between church and state are “adulterous” and shut down free discussion and open inquiry.
Christian theology itself has just “sprung out of the tail of the heathen mythology.” Supernatural accounts of birth and resurrection and ascension are a “wretched contrivance” and have “every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it.”
Paine says, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a Demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it as I detest every thing that is cruel.”
There’s one of your Founding Fathers for you.
He sprinkles in a bit of Bible-quoting to bring down the king, and now his words, centuries later, often are employed by partisans of the far right and its celebratory Christians.
But the overarching message of the Bible? Rubbish. I’ve got my-own-mind-to-be-my-own-church, thank you very much, says Thomas Paine.
Herein enters The Roy Moore Problem. My gratitude for Roy Moore’s loss pertains less to the politics of Washington, D.C., than it does to my concern for Christianity. I’m weary of the damage self-professed Christians are doing to Christianity.
The Roy Moore Problem is not simply that there are serious allegations of sexual predatory behavior.
This is, of course, a grave and dreadful problem. Prior perhaps to 2016’s presidential election, such serious and apparently legitimate charges would be plenty to disqualify a man from a run for the U.S. Senate.
No, The Roy Moore Problem is deeper even than sexual predation. The problem is this: the heedless pursuit of power in the name of “biblical values.”
The Bible doesn’t care about “biblical values.” Using the phrase “biblical values” is to cheat like Thomas Paine. It uses the Bible for its own narrow agenda.
The Bible is much more concerned with a way of life than mere “biblical values” or “morality.” Christianity is much more interesting than that, and I’m weary of the biblical-values-professed Christians demeaning Christianity.
If the Bible teaches anything, it surely teaches us this: You who have received the vocation of being the people of God, start with yourselves.
You not only avoid sexual abuse and harassment; you also learn to root things like lust and envy out of your hearts.
You not only refuse to kill and murder; you also learn to be kind and gracious and generous.
You not only eschew greed and the ease with which the power of wealth becomes an intoxicant that makes insatiable the appetites of the powerful; you also show to the world your own moderation and temperance and justice.
Lord knows all of that will fill up more than several lifetimes for me.
The Bible never teaches us to “Make America Great Again.” The Bible teaches us that greatness comes through service and compassion and love.
The Bible never teaches us to post up the Ten Commandments in the statehouse. The Bible teaches us the freedom found in humility, the power of meekness and the world-liberating possibilities found in telling the truth.
Thomas Paine thought the Bible was bunk. But he wasn’t an “infidel.” “Infidelity,” he says, “does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”
So maybe Paine turns out to be a rather helpful interpreter then of the sorry state of the quest for “biblical values” in America all mired up in sex and power.
Maybe the unbeliever Paine believes more in the Bible than some of the “biblical values” crowd when he debunks the hankering after power by professed Christians, in order to impose their will, by hook or crook.
Maybe Paine knows that the adultery and infidelity of such an approach is not just in its apparent allowance for sexual predation, but in claiming to believe the Bible but denying it.
“It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief … that mental lying has produced in society,” he asserts in “The Age of Reason.” “When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime … . Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?”
Lee C. Camp is professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the host of Nashville’s “Tokens Show.” A longer version of this article first appeared on the Tokens Show blog and is used with permission. You may follow Lee on Facebook and Instagram at @LeeCCamp and follow Tokens Show on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at @TokensShow.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University, host and creator of the world’s only long-running theological variety show, Tokens Show, and author of Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians (Eerdmans, 2020).