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.
What distinguishes Nature's God is that it rejects all such nuance. The essence of the American founding was an ardent secularism, period. Whatever the Founders said for public consumption about freedom of religion, what they really wanted was freedom from religion. In this they were joined by a considerable cross-section of independent-minded patriots. Stewart insists that atheism was widespread in Revolutionary America, and the only reason we don't remember it is that religious zealots in later years would cover up a historical fact they found embarrassing.
Two realizations are crucial to making sense of this book. First, it is important to keep in mind that Stewart is a philosopher, not a historian. He is at his best in describing and tracing ideas across time. Readers expecting a book primarily about the American Revolution will be surprised how far afield the narrative wanders. By Stewart's reckoning, the Spirit of 1776 can be traced to "the most famous atheist in history," Epicurus. This ancient Greek philosopher posited an infinite and eternal universe and dismissed the possibility of a transcendent deity. Centuries later, radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Benedict de Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke applied these heretical axioms to politics. In the process, they bequeathed their "impiously anti-transcendental" understandings of the origins of civil government to the "ungodly founders of the American republic."
I'll leave it to the philosophers to evaluate whether Stewart has exaggerated the underlying atheism of this cast of characters. (His portrayal of Locke, at least, is sure to arouse controversy.) As a historian, I am more concerned by his utter failure to establish the influence of atheistic belief on America's founding. Historians believe that our most important task is to explain what we see, basing our statements of cause and effect on evidence. Stewart takes a different approach. He concludes that radical philosophy was widespread among common Americans after discovering it in the writings of two individuals, Vermont's backwoods leader Ethan Allen and a Boston physician named Thomas Young. In like manner, he finds that atheistic presuppositions determined the political philosophy of the most prominent Founders by ruthlessly disregarding all competing influences. This is pronouncement, not demonstration.
Stewart is sometimes aware that his argument is weak. He concedes that a variety of other traditions and belief systems "would rank higher in any popularity contest among America's revolutionary generation." But no matter. His job "is not to catalogue influences," Stewart explains disdainfully—after 300 pages in which he has labored to demonstrate the influence of atheistic philosophy on the American founding. His concern is rather "to explain the ideas that mattered in the creation of the modern world." And the ideas that "mattered," as it so happens, are the ones that Stewart agrees with.
This leads to the second realization that is key to understanding Nature's God. It is first and foremost a partisan work by a devout atheist. It is necessary to make this point because Stewart himself is coy in the way that he introduces his polemic. He conceals his own dogmatic skepticism and presents himself as a mere seeker of truth who was repeatedly surprised by his own findings.
And yet the pages that follow drip with condescending contempt for Christianity. The Protestant Christianity that, in his view, the Founders wisely rejected was defined by "strikingly cruel doctrines" that foment hate. At its heart lay the "idea of an angry God who demands absolute humiliation upon pain of eternal damnation." Utterly irrational, utterly anti-intellectual, this "pathology" fed "the world's relentless demands for unquestioning obedience." It was a form of "madness" fueled by "the false certainty of ignorance," and "thinking people" could not abide it.
This is angry parody more than serious scholarship. Stewart caricatures the Protestant Christianity of Revolutionary America, and he does so without substantively engaging a single Christian historian or theologian in more than 400 pages of text. He excludes Christian beliefs from the "ideas that mattered" not because the evidence shows that they lacked influence among Revolutionary patriots but because he deems them to be false.
In his conclusion, Stewart reminds the reader that "the ideas that matter in history" are not the ones "that receive the loudest affirmations from the largest number of people." Instead, "ideas derive their power from their truth." Stewart was thinking of atheism when he wrote those final words. Let us hope that the maxim holds true for his contentious interpretation of the American founding.
Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor of history at Wheaton College, and the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic). He blogs at Faith and History: Thinking Christianly About the American Past.