Thomas Paine and the City of Man

Copyright: Timothy Sexton

Thomas Paine was at the vanguard of the Deist movement that underlined the formation of the United States; a belief system based on the acceptance that the creator God had excused Himself from the daily affairs of man. Puritan leader John Winthrop may have viewed America as a city of God because God had an active interest in a New Jerusalem, but Thomas Paine rejected outright that entire idea and embraced the opposite approach. For men like Thomas Paine and many other architects of the United States, God may have created the world, but then He left it in the hands of man. America for Thomas Paine was, like Winthrop, supposed to be an alternative to the excesses of European civilization, but it wasn’t put there by God for the Puritans to find for His glory. It was put there for the Puritans to find for man’s glory. America, for men like Thomas Paine, would become a city of Man.

Thomas Paine in the Age of Reason declares his belief in the monotheistic deity, but rejects the faults attended to belief that come with organized religion, whether that religion be Christianity, Judaism or anything else. Thomas Paine also discards the theocratic concepts forwarded by men like Winthrop. Paine looks backward to history and correctly observes that confusing political theories with religious dogma has never resulted in anything but the restriction of certain freedoms in the name of moral purity. Where those who follow the ideas of John Winthrop sees God’s intervention as a necessity to democratic ideals and freedom, Thomas Paine and his followers view the two as irreconcilable. It is a view that is commonly held today even by those who argue fiercely for the reintroduction of prayer in school, and call for monuments to the Ten Commandments to be placed inside courthouses. But whereas Paine and his progeny argue against any connection between religion and politics, fundamentalist Christians argue only against non-Christian theocracies. Obviously, this is an inconsistent view, and Thomas Paine would probably argue that it is an excellent example of the lack of rationality at the heart of dogmatic belief such as that propagated by men like John Winthrop. Since nobody can prove that God intervenes in the lives of human beings, much less has a vision for them, the only alternative is for man to have a vision for himself. And that is the essence of the Deist view of religion that Thomas Paine outlines in his works.

Both John Winthrop and Thomas Paine held equally lofty views of America’s place in their respective cosmologies. Where the two men differed was substantial, however. John Winthrop would never have accepted that America wasn’t part of God’s design, and Thomas Paine would never be satisfied with the lack of rational thought behind Winthrop’s perspective.