Earlier this month I had an opportunity to review a new book on the American founding for Christianity Today. The book is Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. The author, Matthew Stewart, is an independent writer, a philosopher by training, and an atheist by conviction. (If you missed the review, you can read it here.) Summarizing broadly, Nature’s God argues that the vision of the leading Founders was aggressively secular. Their worldview centered on a radical deism that was tantamount to atheism, and their ultimate objective was not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. What is more, their views were widely shared by common Americans in the revolutionary era.
Although Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.
The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots. In short, the emperor has no clothes.
I was under a strict word limitation in my review for CT, and there was quite a bit that I wanted to say that space didn’t allow. Before the buzz about the book fades completely—hopefully not too long from now—I thought I would share some thoughts that didn’t get into the formal review. Here are two somewhat lengthy additional reflections:
First, a great deal of what Stewart wants to do in Nature’s God is challenge the intellectual coherence of orthodox Christianity. Debates about the past are almost always debates about the present in disguise, and Stewart’s claims about the origins of the American Revolution are no exception. The author openly longs for the day when religious belief is wholly “confined to the private sphere, as a purely inward matter, where it is rendered harmless.” He recognizes that it’s easier to justify the banishment of faith from public life in 2014 if you can prove that it was irrelevant in 1776.
Yet for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account. And as for the teachings of Scripture and the elements of orthodoxy, Stewart’s strategy is to ignore theologians altogether and instead lampoon the purported beliefs of “the common religious consciousness.”
Stewart alludes to “the common religious consciousness” incessantly (on pages 72, 92, 131, 158, 173, 174, 322, 339, 370, 374, 387, 389, 397, 427, among other places). When he tires of the phrase he ridicules instead “the common view of things,” “the religious conception,” “the common sense of the matter,” “conventional wisdom,” “the common conception,” “common intuition,” “common ideas about things,” “a common line of interpretation” and the “widely accepted view today.” The one thing that unifies every one of these references is that they lack even a single specific reference to supporting evidence. The “common religious consciousness” is simply Stewart’s rhetorical whipping boy. It stands for whatever straw man he needs at the moment to make Christianity appear ludicrous.
Don’t get me wrong. At times Nature’s God is an impressively scholarly work. The end notes are ninety pages long, and Stewart can split hairs with the best of them in exploring the subtleties of Epicurean philosophy or the writings of Benedict de Spinoza. But when it comes to defining the Christianity he so detests, the book becomes appallingly unscholarly, even anti-intellectual. Christianity is simply whatever Stewart says it is. And that makes Stewart’s job of ridiculing it a lot easier. “Nice work, if you can get it,” as we like to say around the McKenzie household.
Second, although Stewart would wince at the comparison, I kept thinking while reading Nature’s God that the book has a lot in common with the works of David Barton. A recurring theme in Barton’s “Christian America” interpretation is that the true history of America’s origins has been intentionally hidden by secularists who hate the truth. With almost perfect symmetry, Stewart argues that Christian apologists have “lobotomized” the more radical leaders of the Revolution and covered up the reality that they were religious heretics. From the founding all the way to our day, “there have been many attempts,” Stewart charges, “most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful—to deny or emend this basic fact of American history.”
Like Barton, Stewart also contends that he has no agenda other than a zealous commitment to discover the truth. He claims that he was “eager to see what I might learn” from the writings of Barton, Tim LaHaye, Gary Demar, and company—a whopper if I’ve ever heard one—and he insists that he was repeatedly surprised by the conclusions that his unbiased examination of the evidence thrust upon him. As I followed Stewart’s description of his approach in the book’s preface, the image that came to mind was an academic version of Sgt. Joe Friday, the relentless Dragnet detective who followed the evidence wherever it led. Just the facts, ma’am.
The reality is much different. Stewart–like Barton–approaches the past more like a defense attorney than a police detective. His job is not to present the whole truth to the jury, but rather to make the strongest case that he can for his client. To put it differently, Stewart–just like Barton–is focused more on scoring points in the culture wars than on wrestling with the complexities of the past. Winning the argument trumps understanding the issues.
I’ll take the time to share one appalling example of this from Nature’s God. In chapter two (titled “Pathologies of Freedom”), Stewart introduces the villain in his melodrama, namely the Protestant Christianity that was widespread in the American colonies in the aftermath of the Great Awakening. His primary goal for the chapter is to demonstrate how utterly anti-intellectual Christianity was (and is).
To that end, Stewart frames the chapter in terms of a relentless struggle between science and religion. The former is defined by an open-ended commitment to truth, the latter by narrow-minded bigotry and hostility to free inquiry. Stewart begins the chapter with an anecdote involving Ethan Allen, the free-thinking backwoodsman who would go on to fame during the Revolution as leader of Vermont’s “Green Mountain Boys.” In 1764 Allen was arrested in Salisbury, Connecticut for defying a town ordinance prohibiting the administration of smallpox vaccinations. According to Stewart, the town’s council of “selectmen” had caved in to religious arguments that vaccination interfered with divine sovereignty. In an end note buried 414 pages later, he acknowledges that “opinion on the subject of inoculation did not consistently divide along theological lines.” But in the text he notes only that Allen’s arrest “could be seen as one of many collisions between religion and science.”
Having used the vignette to illustrate the supposed hostility between faith and reason, Stewart then devotes the heart of the chapter to an overview of the theology of the Great Awakening, focusing most of his attention on an extended character sketch of the famous preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. According to Stewart’s contemptuous caricature, Edwards fomented hate, taught “strikingly cruel doctrines,” and brainwashed his congregation into worshiping “an angry God who demands absolute humiliation upon pain of eternal damnation.” What offends Stewart most is Edward’s purported war on reason. His followers were sheep who succumbed to Edwards’ insistence on “absolute submission,” on “obedience without sense or purpose.” Finding no intellectually respectable grounds for Christian conviction, Stewart dismisses the Christianity of colonial America as a form of “madness.”
At this point, I could almost feel myself pulling for those brave colonial atheists who refused to shut off their brains even as waves of religious superstition rolled across the land. But although Stewart’s prose is colorful and engaging, the author’s characterization of Edwards is more ignorant rant than serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards was one of the preeminent intellectuals of colonial America. He read widely, thought deeply about literature and art and philosophy, and was throughout his life an advocate, not an opponent of science. When he died prematurely in 1758, he had just assumed the presidency of one of the leading institutions of higher education in North America, Princeton College. He was the last person to cast faith and reason as unalterable enemies. That view belongs to Matthew Stewart, not Jonathan Edwards.
And the cause of Edwards’ premature death? The point is hardly irrelevant to the chapter on colonial religion as Stewart frames it. Edwards died from a smallpox inoculation, having concluded that the risk involved from being infected with a mild case of the disease was justified by the statistical likelihood of its efficacy. Stewart never once hints at this fact. He is either unaware of it–which is possible, though I find it unlikely–or the truth simply didn’t fit with his predetermined agenda to discredit the Christianity he so despises.