Did the American Revolution give birth to a republic founded on religion or on reason? Were the Founders Christian statesmen who cherished religion as the pillar of a free society? Or were they freethinking sons of the Enlightenment fashioning a secular public square?
Since 1776, Americans have debated these questions repeatedly, but not out of interest in the past per se. The late British historian Catherine Wedgwood once observed that what most people want from history "is not the truth about the past . . . but ideas and directives for conduct in the present." And so it is with our fascination with the Revolution. We are a pluralistic nation divided over the proper place of religion in public life, and so we turn to the Revolutionary generation for either answers or ammunition. Sometimes our goal is to learn from the Founders. At least as often our goal is to use them, as we mine their writings for proof texts to support positions we already hold. The political stakes are high, and the debate is contentious.
Joining the controversy just in time for the Fourth of July is Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. The book's thesis—like its subtitle—is hardly subtle: America's key founders were the most radical of skeptics. Their philosophy, boiled down to its essence, was indistinguishable from atheism. Their atheism, though artfully disguised to make it palatable, infused the political principles that gave form to the new United States. All this means that "in 1776 America declared independence not from one imperial monarch but from the tyranny that the human mind imposes on itself through the artifice of supernatural religion." For Stewart, One Nation Without God would be a historically accurate motto.
Apart from the hyperbole, what precisely is new about Stewart's reading of the founding? It's not his assertion that the religious views of the most prominent Founders were unorthodox. With apologies to David Barton, there is little evidence that the leading Founders were devout Christians who based their political philosophy primarily on Scripture. Whether we label them "deists" or "theistic rationalists" or "Enlightenment Christians," no historically sound argument can transform them into card-carrying evangelicals. Nor is Stewart being innovative in claiming that the Founders drew extensively from Enlightenment sources in thinking about the proper structure and function of government. Scholars of the Revolution almost unanimously agree with this, and that includes Christian historians who take religion's role with great seriousness.
But the predominant view within the academy would complicate each of these conclusions. Scholars typically argue that the leading Founders were unorthodox, but not irreligious. Yes, they found much of value in Enlightenment philosophy, but they gravitated toward the Enlightenment's more moderate expressions, especially Scottish "Common Sense" writings that could be reconciled with Christianity. And to the degree that they embraced deism or something close to it, they adopted a worldview confined largely to elite intellectuals. They were thus hardly representative of the rank and file of Americans, many of whom had been swept up in the religious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening. In sum, the intellectual influences on the Revolutionary generation were numerous and diverse. Orthodox Christian belief was hardly determinative, but neither was it insignificant.