A Secular Founding Father: On Ian Ruskin's "Thomas Paine" Print
Criticism

Thomas Paine(The Truth Seeker May, 2016)

The one- or two-hour biography, whether film or play or documentary, is fraught with landmines: the portrayal reduces the life, redacts the ideas, rings the subject’s good bells, tosses in a token failure or two, and pumps up an artificial destiny. All was meant to be, we see in hindsight, ’tis great-man history. Such unnuanced bios—I’m thinking of films like Ali and Steve Jobs—re-mythologize the life to salvage one on whom history has been confused or ungenerous. We make a flawed man great again if we carefully rehab him. Think of the slow Teddy-Bearing of George W. Bush.

There may be no better candidate for reconstitution than Thomas Paine, secularism’s favorite anti-British British hero of American independence, perhaps the finest polemicist our republic has ever known. During his life (1737-1809), Paine was loved and reviled, the latter, the loudest. In his sixties and an American citizen, he became the “filthy little atheist” and the “devil incarnate,” a pariah to the cause of liberty. One obituary said Paine “had lived long, done some good, and much harm.” His haters’ wrath centered on The Age of Reason (1794-6), a lucid refutation of religion. In days of yore when dissent in print or speech led to the guillotine, Paine disavowed all creeds and clerical authority, judged the Bible a scurrilous tale of a cruel deity, and thought Jesus Christ just another wayward stargazer. A deist, Paine marveled at the Creation and lovingly called the Creator, God.

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Scripturally Based Hostility

One day in 1991, the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, along with his top lieutenant, Marty Rathbun, were having lunch in Washington DC, not far from the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. Five years earlier, when Miscavige had seized hold of the church’s leadership following the death of their potentate, L. Ron Hubbard, he inherited the organization and its colossal debt to the IRS—at the time, estimates were as high as $1 billion; Scientology’s reserves were just 12% of that—as well as a war of denunciation both sides waged on the other that was years in the making.

 

Scientology was founded by Hubbard in 1954. Three years later, the IRS granted the church a tax-exempt status as a charitable organization. But in 1967, the agency revoked its status. Ten years of secret investigation and eventual court proceedings led the IRS to declare that Hubbard and crew were takers, not givers. The church existed “to benefit its founder” as well as those few executives with whom he shared (some of) the bounty. In several decisions, courts called Scientology “a commercial enterprise.” Meaning its sales, services, land and buildings, should be taxed because the group showed no evidence of charitable activity despite making unconscionable profits on Hubbard’s conversion method, called Dianetics, on psychological auditing, and on estate gifts from its joiners.