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(Un)Civil Religion? Thomas Paine, John Locke, and the Role of the Churches in Liberal Society
Unformatted Document Text:  21 inadvertently encourage wickedness; in his opinion, Christ’s teachings give license to the oppressor and harm the dignity of man. The cause of liberty therefore demands that man practice a religion that is more appropriate to his dignity and capacity. Although this argument is unique among deists (most of whom denied Christ’s divinity but nonetheless claimed that his teachings were wise and good), it is familiar to readers of modern political thought. Perhaps most notably, Machiavelli laments “the weakness into which the present religion has led the world.” 63 Paine rehabilitates this aspect of Machiavelli’s thought in the Age of Reason: particularly Machiavellian is Paine’s insistence that Christian teachings make men less manly: The doctrine of not retaliating injuries is much better expressed in Proverbs, which is a collection as well from the Gentiles as the Jews, than it is in the Testament. It is there said, Proverbs xxv, ver. 21, ‘If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:’ but when it is said, as in the Testament, ‘If a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,’ it is assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel. 64 We see that Paine trumpets a radical critique of Christianity in the Age of Reason; this understanding lies at the core of modern political thought, especially in the thought of Machiavelli, but is obscured by subsequent attempts by liberals to undermine Christianity by more subtle means. Moreover, it appears that the latter efforts were largely successful. A Lockean-style doctrine of religious toleration was widely embraced in the United States at the time that Paine wrote the Age of Reason: the religious wars that so profoundly influenced Locke and Hobbes were distant memories to denizens of the New World: why did Paine think it necessary to depart from the subtler—and largely 63 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses on Livy, Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, (University of Chicago Press: 1996) “Preface to Book One,” 6. For a good introduction to Machiavelli’s opinion of Christianity, see Clifford Orwin, “Machiavelli’s Unchristian Charity,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec. 1978) 1217-1228. 64 Age of Reason 181-82.

Authors: Parsons, William.
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21
inadvertently encourage wickedness; in his opinion, Christ’s teachings give license to the
oppressor and harm the dignity of man. The cause of liberty therefore demands that man
practice a religion that is more appropriate to his dignity and capacity.
Although this argument is unique among deists (most of whom denied Christ’s
divinity but nonetheless claimed that his teachings were wise and good), it is familiar to
readers of modern political thought. Perhaps most notably, Machiavelli laments “the
weakness into which the present religion has led the world.”
63
Paine rehabilitates this
aspect of Machiavelli’s thought in the Age of Reason: particularly Machiavellian is
Paine’s insistence that Christian teachings make men less manly:
The doctrine of not retaliating injuries is much better expressed in
Proverbs, which is a collection as well from the Gentiles as the Jews, than
it is in the Testament. It is there said, Proverbs xxv, ver. 21, ‘If thine
enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him
water to drink
:’ but when it is said, as in the Testament, ‘If a man smite
thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also
,’ it is assassinating the
dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel.
64
We see that Paine trumpets a radical critique of Christianity in the Age of Reason;
this understanding lies at the core of modern political thought, especially in the thought
of Machiavelli, but is obscured by subsequent attempts by liberals to undermine
Christianity by more subtle means. Moreover, it appears that the latter efforts were
largely successful. A Lockean-style doctrine of religious toleration was widely embraced
in the United States at the time that Paine wrote the Age of Reason: the religious wars that
so profoundly influenced Locke and Hobbes were distant memories to denizens of the
New World: why did Paine think it necessary to depart from the subtler—and largely
63
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses on Livy, Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov,
(University of Chicago Press: 1996) “Preface to Book One,” 6. For a good introduction to Machiavelli’s
opinion of Christianity, see Clifford Orwin, “Machiavelli’s Unchristian Charity,” The American Political
Science Review
, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec. 1978) 1217-1228.
64
Age of Reason 181-82.


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