Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University.
Matthew Stewart is upset. It seems there have been many attempts, “most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful,” to deny the “basic fact” that America’s founders embraced a version of deism that is “functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism’; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism” (4-5). “Christian nationalists” such as David Barton, Gary DeMar, John Eidsmoe, and “Tim La Haye” [sic] who challenge this reality not only “misread the American Revolution … they betray it” (445). Given this complaint, one might think that Stewart would engage books written by these men. But he ignores them. Instead, he points to four volumes that provide “a good start on exposing the deceitful historiography of Christian nationalism” (445). Of these books, Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming (2007), Jeff Sharlet’s The Family (2008), Rob Boston’s Why the Religious Right is Wrong about the Separation of Church and State (2003), and Chris Rodda’s Liars For Jesus (2006), only the latter—a self-published screed—comes close to meeting this description. The others make occasional references to Barton but are far more interested in revealing theocratic conspiracies by leaders of the religious right.
In addition to popular Christian authors, “new Christian nationalists” are also a “powerful force” within the academy (445). The only example Stewart gives of such a work is a volume I co-edited with Daniel L. Dreisbach and “Jeffery” [sic] Morrison entitled The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009). We, in cooperation with contributors Mark Noll, Edith Gelles, Gary Scott Smith, William Casto, Gregg Frazer, Thomas Buckley, Jonathan Den Hartog, David Voelker, Kevin Hardwick, Robert Abzug, and Rosemarie Zaggari, succeed in “creating the illusion of a debate where in substance there is none” (445). That Stewart considers any of these scholars to be “Christian nationalists,” new or otherwise, should give anyone familiar with the literature on religion and the American founding pause. Many of these scholars have also written well-received books and articles on the subject, yet these are completely ignored by Stewart. So are relevant works penned by Jane Calvert, Thomas Curry, John Fea, Nathan Hatch, James Hutson, Thomas Kidd, Donald Lutz, George Marsden, Vincent Philip Muñoz, Ellis Sandoz, and Barry Shain.
Stewart does mention books by Alan Heimert, Steven Waldman, Patricia Bonomi, T. H. Breen, and Jack Rakove that contend, in his estimation, that “the American Republic owes its independence and its individual freedom to its Protestant Christian legacy” (72; 460). But he dismisses this view as getting “the history of ideas almost exactly wrong” (73). These authors miss, in Stewart’s mind, the central truth that the “Reformed religion brought carnage to Britain and Germany in the seventeenth century and madness to America in the eighteenth because it was a symptom of modernity, not a cause—a pathology, not a theory” (73).1 In contrast to “new Christian nationalists” and others who see the relationship between religion and the American founders as complex, Stewart much prefers the clarity of R. R. Palmer, who “could still write” as late as 1959 that, “as for the leaders of the American Revolution, it should be unnecessary to demonstrate that most of them were deists” (445). Those were the good old days.
Or were they? It seems to me that it is still quite common for writers to echo Palmer’s assertion. Included among their number are Brooke Allen, Edwin Gaustad, Steven Green, Richard Hughes, Susan Jacoby, Harvey Kaye, Steven Keillor, Isaac Kramnick, Frank Lambert, William Martin, R. Laurence Moore, Geoffrey Stone, John Wilsey, and Gordon Wood.2 If these authors bother to defend their claims, something R. R. Palmer did not do, they follow a distressingly common and problematic path. In most cases they focus on the religious views of some combination of the following men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and Alexander Hamilton. On rare occasions they reach beyond this select fraternity to include another founder, and almost inevitably they concede that not all founders were as enlightened as the ones they profile. However, they leave the distinct impression that most founders, and certainly the important ones, were deists.
Stewart departs little from this pattern. The vast majority of the examples he gives of founders rejecting orthodox Christian views come from five men: Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Young. Virtually no one—including popular Christian authors—denies that these men came to embrace heterodox views. The first three are well known and are regularly discussed in books of this sort. Stewart’s relatively minor deviation from the common approach is his heavy reliance on Allen and Young. Allen is reasonably well known as the hero of Fort Ticonderoga, an important advocate for Vermont statehood, and the author of the first American book advocating deism, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1785). Even admirers recognize that Allen was a poor writer, that the book sold fewer than 200 copies, and that it had almost no influence. After its publication he played virtually no role in American politics, which perhaps helps explain why writers who argue that America’s founders were deists do not spend a great deal of time discussing him. One contribution of Nature’s God is to introduce the deist founder Young. Young is not unknown to students of religion and the founding, but he is usually described in passing as Allen’s mentor and the unacknowledged coauthor of Reason the Only Oracle of Man. Stewart contends that Young was not, in fact, the volume’s coauthor. As well, he does a good job of highlighting Young’s underappreciated contributions such as advocating resistance to perceived acts of British tyranny in Boston and helping to craft the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. Yet Young died in 1777 and so played little role in the creation of America’s constitutional order.
No reasonable student of religion and the founding denies that the five founders regularly quoted by Stewart rejected orthodox Christian beliefs. But the case is far more questionable with the other important founders Stewart claims as radical deists: Washington and Madison. Indeed, Stewart gives no evidence that they rejected orthodox Christian ideas, to say nothing of embracing deism or pantheism. Like other texts in this genre, the proof he offers is highly seletive or misleading. For instance, Stewart writes: “Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Gouverneur Morris, and possibly the Reverend Ashbel Green, Washington’s own minister…were convinced” that Washington was “a deist, not a Christian” (31). As evidence he cites Jefferson’s diary entries for February 1, 1800, where he recalled that Rush told him that Green observed that Washington was not forthright about his religious views and a second entry where he reported that Morris told him that Washington was not a Christian. It is noteworthy that there is no mention of anyone even suggesting that Washington was a deist, and contrary to Stewart, it is not clear from Jefferson’s “tone” what the Sage of Monticello thought (452).3 Using second- and third-hand accounts is inherently problematic, but if Stewart is going to do so, he should engage competing accounts. For example, John Marshall, the great jurist who served on Washington’s staff during the War for Independence, wrote that the general was a “sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.”4 Similarly, a Frenchman who knew Washington said that “every day of the year, he rises at five in the morning; as soon as he is up, he dresses, then prays reverently to God.”5 Yet Stewart ignores these accounts.
Even more troubling, Stewart quotes Washington selectively and uses ellipses to remove problematic words in his quest to prove him to be a child of the Enlightenment. Consider his use of Washington’s famous Circular to the States (1783), which he quotes to show that America’s first president joined the radical deistical project of discarding, in Stewart’s words, “the politically dangerous delusions that arise from the common religious consciousness” (389). In a footnote to this sentence he concedes that Washington also gives credit for America’s progress to “the pure and benign light of revelation,” but dismisses this as “a characteristic gesture of Washington and the deistic Enlightenment—to give credit for pacifying the rebarbative masses” (528). But consider the sentence in full (passages quoted by Stewart in bold):
The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.6
Given Stewart’s argument, it would seem reasonable for him to address Washington’s claim that “the light of Revelation” has had an influence “above all” other factors.
But things get worse (at least for Stewart’s argument) if one reads the last sentence in the Circular:
I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for brethren who have served in the Field; and finally that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.7
Do popular Christian authors make too much of this paragraph with its prayer, paraphrase of Micah 6:8, and reference to Jesus Christ (“the Divine Author of our religion”)? Perhaps. But a scholar interested in presenting an accurate account of Washington’s views should engage this part of the text, not simply ignore it. It is ironic that Stewart’s use of primary sources, here and elsewhere, bears a strong resemblance to the worst practices of the popular Christian authors that he criticizes.
Stewart makes a weak case that Washington is a deist, and he offers even less reason to believe that Madison is appropriately labeled as such. He does mention in passing a few other founders who held heterodox views, such as John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Joel Barlow, and Philip Freneau. But rejecting some tenets of orthodox Christianity is not the same thing as embracing deism, a distinction that seems lost on Stewart. Indeed, it is shocking how little evidence Stewart offers to support this affirmative claim.
Those who argue that America’s founders were deists often limit their claims to “key,” if unrepresentative, founders, but Stewart also contends that deism “spread in America far beyond the educated elite” (5). He provides few examples of such deists, but he does offer several contemporary accounts. For instance, he quotes the following passage from a 1785 evangelical petition against Patrick Henry’s general assessment bill: “Deism with its ballefull Influence is spreading itself over the state” (31). But again, consideration of the full text from which Stewart is quoting tells a different story. The full sentence reads: “But it is said Religion is taking its flight, and that Deism with its ballefull Influence is spreading itself over the state.”8 Note that the authors are not themselves making the claim; they are referring to someone else, presumably supporters of the general assessment bill. Advocates of government subsidies have an obvious incentive to exaggerate the problems they seek to address with taxpayer dollars.
Many scholars who contend that the founders were deists understand the god of deism to be, in Stewart’s words,
a “watchmaker God” who fashions a world of mechanical wonders and then walks away to the sound of ticking noises. Deism, according to this line of interpretation, was just a watery expression of the Christian religion” (5).
Stewart rejects this conventional view. Instead, he contends that America’s founders embraced a form of deism that is “functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism,’ and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism” (5). America’s founders as functional atheists; now there is an interesting claim.
Stewart spends a good portion of Nature’s God examining the philosophical roots of America’s heretical origins. He traces them to Epicurus and Lucretius, who developed a rationalist, materialist philosophy that looks to nature, not God, for guidance. Their quest was embraced by modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, but critical to this enterprise is the work of Benedict de Spinoza. Spinoza, it turns out, is the “principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American republic” (147-148). Stewart concedes that “there was—and is—no meaningful evidence at all in revolutionary America” of Spinoza’s influence (3). But this does not matter as Locke embraced Spinoza, and Locke is “the single greatest intellectual influence on America’s revolutionaries” (141). We know this because Carl Becker told us so in 1922 (141). Ah, the good old days.
Stewart recognizes that Locke can be read as being more or less compatible with Christianity, but he dismisses this debate with the unsupported assertion that “by the time his work reached American ears, only the radical interpretation [of Locke’s works] mattered” (241). Making almost no reference to what the founders (elite or otherwise) actually read or cited, he argues for a clear line of influence from Epicurus to Hobbes to Spinoza to Locke to the American founders.
Stewart regularly makes sweeping statements that leave the impression America’s founders were radical deists who wanted to create a godless republic, but he occasionally offers the qualification that many Americans were traditional Christians and that intellectual traditions not antithetically opposed to Christianity may have had some influence as well (see, for example, 32; 352). But these qualifications are too few, faint, and far between. By focusing on a handful of founders with radical religious views, some important—Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine—and others relatively unimportant—Allen and Young—he grossly distorts the founders’ religious views and political commitments. Even brief consideration of a wider range of founders reveals a very different picture.9
Before concluding, I should observe that Stewart’s grasp of basic political and constitutional issues in the era leaves much to be desired. To give just a few examples, Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1776 did not contain a “bristling array of checks and balances” (376). James Wilson was the only delegate to the federal convention of 1787 to argue for the direct, popular, and proportional election of members of the House and Senate and the President, yet Stewart labels him the “personification of the ‘conservative’ side of the Revolution” (387). Presumably to convince readers that Wilson was a conservative, Stewart notes that he was “the architect of the ‘three-fifths’ compromise that embedded the institution of slavery in the new Constitution” (387). Wilson did propose this compromise in Philadelphia, but scholars have long debated who, exactly, should be considered its “architect.” And if Wilson’s association with slavery makes him “conservative,” it should perhaps be noted that he voluntarily manumitted the one slave he owned, whereas “radical deists” such as Jefferson, Madison, and Washington felt no need to do the same (at least during their lifetimes) for their hundreds of slaves.
Nature’s God suffers from a number of serious flaws. Stewart virtually ignores the vast literature on the role of religion in the American founding and he utterly fails to engage scholars whose works challenge his thesis. He misuses and misconstrues primary sources and largely ignores founders (key and otherwise) who do not fit his thesis. Alan Ryan, in a friendly blurb, describes the book as “partisan scholarship.” It seems to me that Ryan is half right. Readers interested in a polemical account of religion in the American founding almost completely ungrounded in history may enjoy this book, but anyone interested in a serious treatment of religion in the era should look elsewhere.
Cite this article
- John Adams apparently made the same mistake when he wrote “I love and revere the memories of Huss Wickliff Luther Calvin Zwinglius Melancton and all the other reformers how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.” John Adams to F. C. Schaeffer, November 25, 1821. Quoted in Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (New York: Oxford, 2013), 24, wherein I argue that Reformed political thought had a significant influence on many of America’s founders.
- Citations supporting this claim available upon request: [email protected]
- Paul Leicester Ford, ed. Works of Thomas Jefferson, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), 1: 352-353. As Stewart acknowledges, Green later denied ever questioning Washington’s orthodoxy (452).
- Marshall, The Life of George Washington (James Crissy, 1832), 2: 445.
- Quoted in Gilbert Chinard, ed. George Washington as the French Knew Him: A Collection of Texts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940), 119.
- Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2009), 296-297.
- Ibid., 298.
- Ibid., 308.
- See, for instance, the approximately thirty three founders and traditions profiled in Daniel Dreisbach, Jeffry Morrison, and Mark David Hall, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life; and Dreisbach and Hall, eds, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (New York: Oxford, 2014).