In the thread on Rep. Sam Johnson’s post about his bill to force military officers to swear on oath to God, I encountered the same kind of historical distortions I criticize so strongly when David Barton does it. But they came from an atheist claiming that some of the founders were atheists. His comment:
The founding fathers did not claim we are One Nation Under God. That was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 after lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The error Sam Johnson and the rest of the Church Bullies make is assuming that people in the past couldn’t have been less religious than people today. But Thomas Jefferson was a deist. James Madison was at least a deist and possibly an atheist. Thomas Paine (tea party hero) was *definitely* and atheist.
My response: No, no, no. I think Rep. Johnson is a theocrat and a menace, but I wish my fellow atheists would stop trying to make the founding fathers into their mirror image (the kind of thing the Christian right has been doing forever, to much well-deserved criticism). Thomas Paine was not only not “definitely” an atheist, no case could possibly be made that he was. Have you actually read Age of Reason? It begins with a statement of his beliefs:
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy….
As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some other observations on the word revelation. Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.
No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.”
Paine was a deist. He rejected divine revelation and almost all of the Christian creed. But he was not an atheist and no one who has read his works could possibly believe that he was. And there is not one shred of evidence that Madison was either and much evidence against it in both his public and private writings. Christian and atheist are not the only two religious options.