by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Princeton University Press, 272 pp., $27.95)
Every day I walk my dog. Every day we walk the same route. And for the past few months, a sign has stood on that route. The sign is simply a quote, and reads, in its entirety, “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
I’ve been intrigued by this sign ever since I first saw it. The quote is a line from a book by Thomas Paine, and given that I make my living as a scholar of 18th-century political thought, I can’t help but be struck by seeing the words of an 18th-century political theorist so prominently and literally displayed in the public square.
But others have been struck by this statement as well—indeed many others. For as Leigh Eric Schmidt makes clear in his recent book, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, it became gospel of sorts for a long line of American secularists from Paine’s day to our own who have taken it as their rallying cry. And it is for this reason that this line gets quoted no less than eleven times in the course of this relatively short study.
Schmidt indulges in such repetition to bring home the degree to which the secularists of 19th- and 20th-century America were inspired by Paine’s vision and sought to develop a humanitarian secular religion with Paine as its patron saint. Schmidt’s book is a history of this secularizing project. It consciously does not aspire to be comprehensive, but instead develops a narrative built around three very engagingly presented case studies. What unites all three is their common desire to realize what they called the “religion of humanity”—that is, a secular religion, one shorn of theism.
By virtue of this approach Schmidt introduces us to a remarkable cast of characters. One is William Cobbett. Cobbett was an admirer of Paine’s who, on Paine’s death, took it upon himself to disinter his hero’s bones. His hope was to bring them from New York to Britain where, Cobbett imagined, they would inspire a new secular religion that would ultimately bring down the Church of England. To say that he was disappointed in his aims would be an understatement; for all of his pains, Cobbett succeeded only in getting ruthlessly mocked in the public prints and spawning a two-century global treasure hunt for Paine’s skull.
Another remarkable character to whom Schmidt introduces us is George H. Walser, a late 19th-century lawyer who took it upon himself to create America’s first “godless town.” His dream for Liberal, Missouri, was to see its village green organized around not a church for God’s Word but a hall for lectures on “Universal Mental Liberty.” But within a decade Walser’s movement splintered and Liberal’s town hall came to be occupied by Methodists.
A third character: W. H. Kerr of Great Bend, Kansas. Like Walser, Kerr dreamt of a new secular religion. His ideal took the form of a “Church of Humanity,” a vision he sought to propagate far and wide through his monthly subscription newspaper. Kerr too had institutional dreams, and bought the derelict Great Bend Hotel downtown in the hope it might in time house “the headquarters of a worldwide educational and ecclesial project dedicated to his atheistic discoveries.” But it was not to be; as Schmidt tells us, only sixteen people showed up to the Church of Humanity’s 1908 national convention—with Kerr and his wife two of them.
There’s something almost charming, and charmingly familiar, about Cobbett and Walser and Kerr and so many other of the characters to whom Schmidt introduces us. In some sense, we already know them: they’re not just “village atheists,” but quintessentially American dreamers who are ready to work to turn their visions into reality—right up to the moment when they flop.
But there’s also something tragic in this comedy. The champions of the religion of humanity seek to do away with religion. But their vehicle to dispensing with religion is of course religion itself. Thus the irony that Schmidt so masterfully conveys via his title and on every subsequent page of his book: the religion of humanity is clearly a religion in every sense but one. It has hymns and texts, rituals and relics, priests and saints. What it doesn’t have is God.
What to make of this? The champions of the church of humanity of course take this to be its great advantage. Yet it’s hard not to feel that there’s something terribly sad about a movement that so conscientiously mimics precisely that which it most despises. The end result is a religion that lacks the one thing that most of us think makes a religion a religion.
Beyond all the tragicomedy, there’s also something worrisome and indeed even dangerous in many of these figures. First, many of the people Schmidt profiles profess to be animated by the desire to maximize the spread of charity and benevolence and love. Yet what seems often to animate them is something that looks less like love and more like antipathy toward established institutions.
And herein lies the danger. One could be a critic of organized religion and still balk at the take-no-prisoners efforts of these reformers to replace it altogether. These are men and women animated by fervor and zeal. The slow and deliberate approach that might try to assess the collateral damage their reforms could possibly incur just isn’t of much interest to them. This energy, which I’m calling fervor and zeal, Paine’s 18th-century contemporaries would likely have called “enthusiasm.” But whatever you call it, it has the potential to be terribly destabilizing. And at a time when so many of America’s core institutions are dysfunctional, this makes for bracing reading.
Schmidt ends his history with a long epilogue, bringing in figures from Upton Sinclair and John Dewey to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the course of ultimately bringing us up to 2012. The effect of this is to invite the reader to speculate on just how Paine’s vision might be relevant to us today.
Interestingly, the day after I finished this book, I noticed on my daily dog walk that the old sign bearing Paine’s quote had been taken down. In its place was a new sign, with a new quote. This one was from the film critic Molly Haskell, and read: “One of the attributes of love is to bring harmony and order out of chaos.” I confess I’m not sure I yet understand exactly what this means. But my suspicion is that Haskell’s call to lead with love may stand more in line with what we and our institutions most need right now.
Ryan Patrick Hanley, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is professor of political science at Boston College. His most recent books are The Political Philosophy of Fénelon (2020) and a companion translation volume, Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings (2020).
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