Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, by Matthew Stewart (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2014, ISBN 978-0-393-06454-4). 566 pp. Hardcover, $28.95.
Several years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) succeeded in a court challenge to a large, lighted cross atop a radio tower at a fire station in a Chicago suburb during the holiday season. During the ensuing hubbub, the local ACLU sponsored a meeting at which I was the speaker. After I outlined our history of religious freedom through church-state separation, an irate woman in the audience, a supporter of the lighted cross, accused me of being the author of the First Amendment. (I really don’t look that old.)
Similarly, during the Iranian elections a couple of years ago, an American television crew in Tehran interviewed Iranians on the street about American government. The crew later interviewed people on the streets in the United States on the same subject. The Iranians seemed to have a better grasp of the U.S. system than the Americans. (“How many senators does your state have?” “Duh, I dunno.” “Can you name your congressman?” “Uh, no.”)
Far too many Americans seem to be distressingly ignorant of American history and how government works and are thus not prepared to deal with the religious Right’s and Tea Party’s myths about the role of religion in the founding of our government and how federal, state, and local governments should deal with religious matters. As a former public-school history teacher, I attribute this largely to the fact that too many of our history teachers are athletic coaches whose interests lie elsewhere, and also that teaching the intricacies of our history too often exposes teachers to unwanted pressures.
Matthew Stewart in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, puts our history straight with an in-depth scholarly examination of our founders’ thinking about religion, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin, plus such lesser-known figures as Ethan Allen, Joel Barlow, Philip Frenau, and Thomas Young. All were deists of one sort or another who were influenced by the work of such philosophers as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and other Enlightenment figures, who were in turn influenced by Epicurus (341–270 BCE) and Lucretius (95–55 BCE). The founders were neither “irreligious” nor like today’s evangelicals; they did their best not to stir up religious controversy. In addition, deism was never an organized body such as a church or a movement. The “Nature’s God” of the book’s title is that of the Declaration of Independence. It is not the deity of the mid-eighteenth-century “Great Awakening” or of today’s conservative evangelicals but rather the somewhat generalized “First Cause” of Jefferson and the deists, who often used the words God and Nature interchangeably.
What led noted First Amendment scholar Leo Pfeffer to write in his 1958 book Creeds in Competition that “the deistic rationalism of late eighteenth century America (more often referred to in this book by the more modern term, secular humanism) has had a tremendous influence in American history.” And, “The term ‘secular humanism’ is used in this book not to mean a consciously non-theistic movement, but merely the influence of those unaffiliated with organized religion and concerned with human values.” This in turn may be where the Supreme Court in the 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins ruling got its footnote listing “Secular Humanism” as “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.” (See my article “Tracing ‘Secular Humanism’” in the April/May 2013 Free Inquiry.)
We might also note that in 1776 we were in the early stages of a war against the most powerful empire on the planet, one that was still not entirely free of the notion of the “divine right of kings.” What better way to sell the revolution than by proclaiming the “divine rights of the people.” With independence secured, the constitution writers in 1787 saw no need to insert religious language of any kind in the document other than a ban on religious tests for public office and allowing government officers to be “bound by Oath or Affirmation.” This of course was followed shortly by the Bill of Rights, the first article of which protects religious liberty and bars acts “respecting an establishment of religion,” erecting, in Jefferson’s words, a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Stewart’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the men who led our democratic revolution and built our government. But I wish he had noted that Madison and Jefferson’s efforts in laying the groundwork for religious liberty and church-state separation in Virginia would not have been successful without the support of Baptists, Presbyterians, and others—proof that Americans of all religious and life stance persuasions can work together.
Edd Doerr is a columnist and regular reviewer for Free Inquiry. He is the president of Americans for Religious Liberty and the author of numerous books and articles.