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 ...1