Leigh Eric Schmidt, "The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism" (Princeton UP, 2021)

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In his new book, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism (Princeton University Press, 2021), Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the surprising story of how freethinking liberals in 19th-century America promoted a secular religion of humanity centered on the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine and how their descendants eventually became embroiled in the culture wars of the late 20th century.

After Paine’s remains were stolen from his grave in New York, and shipped to England in 1819, the reverence of his American disciples took a material turn in a long search for his relics. Paine’s birthday was always a red-letter day for these believers in democratic cosmopolitanism and philanthropic benevolence, but they expanded their program to include a broader array of rites and ceremonies, particularly funerals free of Christian supervision. They also worked to establish their own churches and congregations in which to practice their religion of secularism. All of these activities raised serious questions about the very definition of religion and whether it included nontheistic fellowships and humanistic associations—a dispute that erupted again in the second half of the twentieth century. As right-wing Christians came to see secular humanism as the most dangerous religion imaginable, small communities of religious humanists, the heirs of Paine’s followers, were swept up in new battles about religion’s public contours and secularism’s moral perils. Schmidt’s book paints an engrossing account of an important but little-known chapter in American history, and reveals why the lines between religion and secularism are often much blurrier than we imagine.

Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and joined the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics in 2011. He has appeared on NPR programs and other radio shows to discuss his many books, including this show, in 2018, to tell us about his book Village Atheists. He has also contributed to such notable media outlets as The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, London Times, Boston Globe, and a number of other titles you would no doubt recognize.

Carrie Lynn Evans is a PhD student at Université Laval in Quebec City. carrie-lynn.evans@lit.ulaval.ca

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