A world little changed since the Age of Reason

Faith and Reason: John Kennedy reflects on what Tom Paine, the 18th-century radical whom Teddy Roosevelt called a 'filthy little atheist', would make of Britain today.
John Keane has written a splendid biography of Tom Paine. It exposes some of the most urgent political and religious questions of our own time. It is also a cracking good read.

Paine's enthusiasm for the French revolution led to his flight from England in 1791, in danger of his life. Some months later, even though a Deputy for the Pas de Calais, he lay in a cell in the former Luxembourg Palace, condemned to death by Robespierre. Paine shared a cell with three Belgians at the height of the Terror. Orders were sent across the river from the Tuileries for the four to be executed, among the day's batch of hundreds. But Paine had a high fever, and the jailers kindly left the cell door open. So the door was marked with the number "4" - on the inside. The Belgians seized their chance, shut the door, and muffled Paine's delirious moanings. Before the mistake was noticed, Robespierre fell, and was himself executed.

One view of Paine is that his revolutionary enthusiasm set the People in violent conflict with Church and State, and so the "filthy little atheist" (in Teddy Roosevelt's phrase) deserved to be done in by the Jacobins. Professor Keane shows that Paine is subtler and more important than that. His phenomenally successful books appealed to a thinking audience. He saw the English monarchy as thoroughly oppressive, but believed that ordinary England was quite capable of governing itself largely through its existing local institutions. He even liked banks, to the enragement of his American radical friends - he saw that poor people needed power in the marketplace over against already rich merchants. His economics were those of Adam Smith.

Paine had grown suspicious of "The People" as long ago as the late stages of the American War of Independence. He realised that a popular majority could be as tyrannical as an absolute monarchy. Paine learnt the hard way how complex and deep a layer of protection must stand between the citizen and the state; he had a sharp notion of what we now call "Civil Society".

Keane reveals Paine's Quaker background, but shows how his Methodist experience in Kent shaped his style and ideals. Paine was ardent for change in a way that reflects the popular preaching of Wesley's day. But the political response to that preaching was sometimes distinctly unWesleyan. The early Methodists were powerfully moved by God's grace shown to all humanity in Christ. They shared that experience in an intense fellowship; that is Wesley's legacy. But that shared experience sometimes created a powerful hope that the world could be refashioned in the forms imagined by Paine. The social order these converts proposed was no more than common sense - only the constraints of the Hanoverian State and its Church made their sensible prescriptions seem radical. Keane spots in Paine an early Methodist with a flair for biblical exposition - though finally using his knowledge to demolish orthodoxy.

Paine's religion and his politics were made from the same stuff - the rejection of oppressive power. This is made clear in The Age of Reason: "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit."

Paine spoke of a God who shows His benevolence plainly in the everyday world, in contrast to the gruesome crucified and crucifying God of revealed religion. He insisted that people may believe what they choose, but they may not impose personal revelation as public truth.

Keane offers us a Paine who is not just exciting but contemporary and hopeful. Paine would deplore the continuation of an imperial French presidency, but he would rejoice at the prospective demise of Britain's sleazy plutocracy. He might also see a providential hand in the collapse of Clause IV socialism. The old liberal democrat would rather enjoy New Labour's combination of ardour and common sense. He would certainly be glad at the demise of old Labour, along with its trade-union and town-hall oligarchies. And he would laugh uproariously at the mess the Hanoverians finally got themselves into.

He would deplore the moral chaos of contemporary Britain: but he would expect just that from a system of belief founded on convention rather than conviction. He would not expect us to behave well except on the foundation of genuinely shared belief. But he would be cheered that so many communities of faith thrived, moved by their own shared visions rather than by official prescription, inhabiting a Republic rather than a Kingdom of God. Yet he might be baffled that, amid such evident diversity, some still insisted that theirs was the exclusive truth. And even he might despair at a world so little changed. He might concede that, even without the House of Hanover, the world is deeply tragic, and not adequately addressed by his homespun Deism.

He might even allow that our vision of God's generosity to all humankind might indeed relate, mysteriously, shockingly, to the sacrificial death of Christ.

John Keane's Tom Paine: a political biography is published by Bloomsbury (£25.00)