As I watched the presidential inaugural address in the freezing but sunlit atmosphere on top of the Voice of America building in Washington, D.C., where I was lucky enough to have secured a media perch, I was at first too impressed by the occasion itself to notice something possibly significant about the speech. It’s not every day that one sees my hometown jammed to the limit with celebrating citizenry. I was thinking to myself how little time had elapsed since I’d heard so many people saying that “the Bradley effect” would prevent Obama’s nomination, let alone election, or that if that failed then the voting machines would be fixed or that if even that didn’t work then some white nutbag would get himself a gun and just take the brother down. Yet here it was, large as life, a full-dress inaugural for an African American, and the sky was still firmly in place. A truly democratic moment.
Here’s how the speech ended, as you may remember:
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive . . . that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
Slightly boilerplate stuff in a way: national unity; Valley Forge; the darkest hour just before dawn—it took a while for it to sink in. Yet after all, as far as I know, there was only one occasion when General Washington ordered anything to be read aloud. And that was to the troops (not “the people,” if we are to be fussy). And the words that he ordered to be read were the imperishable words of The Crisis, by Thomas Paine, from which, indeed, the above words are taken. (They are not as lapidary as the opening “These are the times that try men’s souls,” but still. . . .)
So here is an apparently encouraging sign. The new president, having rather spoiled his first day in office by inviting the grotesque figure of Rick Warren, that bulbous religious entrepreneur, to give the invocation, redeems himself by citing the author of not just The Rights of Man but The Age of Reason. Except that he doesn’t quite “cite” Paine. He masks the quotation by making it seem, without exactly saying so, that he is referring us to the altogether “safe” authority of George Washington. The word crisis can be used in lower case, but the name of Paine himself cannot.
In many ways this is a step backward. A quarter of a century ago, Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting Paine proudly and directly to the effect that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” (Actually we don’t, but you have to admit that the sentiment is admirable, in a way.) If you wonder why Obama might have decided to mask the name of Paine, you could look up a report of an event that occurred a week after the presidential inauguration and two days before Paine’s birthday on January 29 but which could have occurred in any month. The State Senate in Arkansas refused to pass a bill that would make that date “Thomas Paine Day.” The main opponent of the measure, which had gotten as far as passing the House, was Senator Randy Laverty, a Democrat, who said that Paine “had some very disparaging things to say about the Bible.” The bill eventually died in committee because it could not find a seconder. The fact that Paine was the first public advocate of American independence in his earlier pamphlet Common Sense could not be allowed to outweigh his apparent tendency to profanity.
This bigotry and stupidity has a long tradition behind it, crudely summarized by Theodore Roosevelt’s description of Paine as “a filthy little atheist.” I wish that Paine had been an atheist, but he was in point of fact a deist who wrote much of The Age of Reason in prison, quoting the Bible largely from memory in order to vindicate the idea of God and to defend the concept from the religious and the sectarian. I suppose that, since he was a deist and not a theist, he could in strict accuracy be referred to as non-theistic or even atheistic, but our vulgar modern discourse has eroded this distinction. Perhaps one should try to popularize the term adeistic in order to state a position that disagrees not just with an intervening and prayer-answering and side-taking God but also with a nonintervening prime mover or supernatural creator.
The fact remains, meanwhile, that an elected president who has shattered one historic taboo is still afraid to take on another. The sentences that immediately follow the Obama excerpt from The Crisis are these: “Say not, that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burthen of the day upon Providence, but ‘show your faith by your works,’ that God may bless you.”
The president must have had this page open in front of him when he was composing the speech (which I am reliably informed that he wrote chiefly himself). Perhaps we should be grateful that he did not include it. It’s interesting that he should keep us guessing about his real convictions, but I still fear that he keeps us guessing because he believes that the religious fanatics cannot be confronted directly and that even the name of Paine, our unacknowledged Founding Father, can only be used in a kind of code.