|A Secular Founding Father: On Ian Ruskin's "Thomas Paine"|
(The Truth Seeker May, 2016)
The one- or two-hour biography, whether film or play or documentary, is fraught with landmines: the portrayal reduces the life, redacts the ideas, rings the subject’s good bells, tosses in a token failure or two, and pumps up an artificial destiny. All was meant to be, we see in hindsight, ’tis great-man history. Such unnuanced bios—I’m thinking of films like Ali and Steve Jobs—re-mythologize the life to salvage one on whom history has been confused or ungenerous. We make a flawed man great again if we carefully rehab him. Think of the slow Teddy-Bearing of George W. Bush.
There may be no better candidate for reconstitution than Thomas Paine, secularism’s favorite anti-British British hero of American independence, perhaps the finest polemicist our republic has ever known. During his life (1737-1809), Paine was loved and reviled, the latter, the loudest. In his sixties and an American citizen, he became the “filthy little atheist” and the “devil incarnate,” a pariah to the cause of liberty. One obituary said Paine “had lived long, done some good, and much harm.” His haters’ wrath centered on The Age of Reason (1794-6), a lucid refutation of religion. In days of yore when dissent in print or speech led to the guillotine, Paine disavowed all creeds and clerical authority, judged the Bible a scurrilous tale of a cruel deity, and thought Jesus Christ just another wayward stargazer. A deist, Paine marveled at the Creation and lovingly called the Creator, God.
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