“Common Sense” is a very short book, written in 1776. It covers a lot of ground. It can be found for free on the Internet in various forms. He eventually gets to talking about the necessity of a Navy for the new country and the importance of acting in a timely manner. But before that he looks at how the whole idea of countries and governments got started in the first place. He has to make some assumptions, but it still is a better place to start than most of the arguments about government that go on today.
When discussing governments these days, either I’m in a room full of people who agree with me that there are few good leaders out there and they are struggling against corruption by big money and political deals that don’t have the best interests of the country in mind. Or, I’m talking to just a few people who think we started out with some very basic values and those values have been corrupted by a post-modern world that wants to redistribute wealth. Both of those points of view involve a lot of assuming and rarely lead to a discussion of what are the basic reasons for government.
Thomas Paine starts his book with basic reasons. In a word, he says governments are for security. He goes on to talk about how we got to the idea of Kings and eventually to the King of England and all the problems with the monarchy and system of succession at that time. He is building a case to convince the American people that it is time to separate themselves from that system and create their own. Regardless of how you feel about how that worked out or whether or not he is being completely honest about his intentions, he presents his case well and it is worth studying his thoughts.
He is a man of his time, and he also has some assumptions he is working with. Although “separation of church and state” would not be uttered for a generation, in the latter half of the book he says, “ For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us.” Then immediately follows that with, “It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle I look on the various denominations among us to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names.” This reminded me of the line from The Blues Brothers movie when John Belushi asks a bar owner what kind of music they play, and she says, “both kinds, country and western.”
I digress somewhat, but being a man who lived in a world dominated by Christianity, Paine needs to address it to make a case for such a blasphemous idea as going against the divine right of the King. He does so saying,
“As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by Kings.”
In a bit of Biblical analysis that foreshadows the actions of George Washington, Paine recounts the story of Gideon, a conquering general who was offered the crown including succession of his progeny forever. Gideon refused saying, “"I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU." (Judges 8:23) Not only declining, but denying their right to give it. It was a brilliant argument against monarchy.... for 1776.
In a different time, 1333 BCE, a 9 year old, Tutankhaten acceded to the Egyptian throne. One wonders what divine right he (or his mother) claimed to make such an accession and how he justified restoring the old deities and giving powers back to the priests of Amun. Probably not something Americans think much about, but many Americans do continue to think about, discuss, even bring up in presidential debate, their Biblical justifications for caring for the poor, giving much to those who from much is expected, the limits of usury, what is or isn’t an abomination, the rights of women and much more.
At some point in the future, if our accumulated knowledge survives long enough, the question of King Tut’s justification for restoring earlier deities will be equivalent to the question of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. America will be just another empire that rose and fell and Christianity another religion that reflected the culture of its time. If you disagree, then you are saying that Christianity is unlike any religion that has come before. That it will survive all future changes and encroachments of new knowledge. I’m not so worried about the people who disagree as those who see this future coming, but ignore it.