Founding Sources: A New Book Examines The Philosophical Underpinnings Of America's 'Heretical' Republic

Editor’s Note: Author Matthew Stewart’s new book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W.W. Norton & Co.) examines the philosophical ideas that motivated America’s founders to establish a secular republic based on the separation of church and state. The book handily debunks the “Christian nation” claims of the Religious Right.

Stewart discussed the tome with Church & State recently.

Stewart: About 10 years ago I began to read more deeply into the philosophical writings of America’s founders – not just the famous ones like like Jefferson, Franklin and Paine, but also less well-known figures such as Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. I was astonished to discover that their philosophical work was much more sophisticated, erudite, cosmopolitan, and subversive than most of the usual stories allowed. I saw in this forgotten, philosophical side of America’s founders something decisive for the revolutionary part of the American Revolution, the part that involved a change in the way in which human beings govern themselves.

I started to think a book would be a good idea when I got home from the library and turned on the news. America’s incredibly rich philosophical heritage hasn’t just been forgotten. It is being trashed. And the people doing most of the trashing are the ones who call themselves “patriots” and who claim to be venerating our “Founding Fathers.”  

So I wanted to get the story out there, to rescue my heroes of the American Enlightenment from the mythologizers. But there is more to it than that. I have come to think that the American Revolution isn’t over yet. I wrote this book to do my bit to encourage others to join the struggle.

Q. According to the Religious Right, the United States was founded to be a Christian nation. I take it you don’t agree. Where do they get it wrong?

Stewart: The first error of Christian nationalism is to confuse the nation with the republic. The United States is not, and was never intended to be, a Christian Republic. Since your readers are familiar with the U.S. Constitution, I don’t want to belabor the point.

Another, more pervasive error is to suppose that there ever was some single, national religion that can be called “Christian.” In fact, the “good old days” of “Christian America” were angrily divided. Probably the most widespread religious belief was that the people in the next town over were doomed to eternal perdition for believing the wrong religion. Nonbelievers -- who generally identified themselves as “deists” – were far more numerous and influential than is widely supposed.

Even if one does allow that there was some (necessarily vague) common culture at the time, a further error is to suppose that the part of the Revolution that matters – the part that changed the world for good – had very much to do with this general culture. In fact, the most amazing thing about America’s founders is that to some degree they managed to transcend the very serious limitations of their time and place.

The most tenacious error in Christian nationalism is the false idea that American system of government rests on some specific set of religiously grounded values (which today are called, with almost perfect anachronism, “Judeo-Christian principles”). This I think is the political-theory version of a common canard in moral theory: that only religious belief can make people good. In fact, the genius of America’s founders was to have discovered that our morality and our civil rights depend only on our commitment to reason, not on any specific religious opinions – to paraphrase Jefferson.

Q. The subtitle of your book refers to “the heretical origins of the American republic.” What do you mean by that?

Stewart: In part I mean it literally. Many of America’s leading revolutionaries were identified in their own time – with good reason – as “infidels.” Even more interesting is that the earlier philosophers upon whom America’s revolutionaries drew for inspiration were widely and correctly pegged as heretics, too. A surprising number were burned at the stake. I should add that they were heretics with respect to not just one but a variety of religious traditions.

Which brings up the second, more theoretical point I want to make in my subtitle. When I say “heretical” I don’t necessarily mean lacking in all religion. Heretics generally come out of religious traditions and remain committed to one form of radical religion or another. What they oppose is the common, mainstream, or orthodox religion. And what they oppose within that common religion, or so I argue, is a set of common conceptions about the nature of morality, the mind, knowledge, justice, and so forth – conceptions that, though not religious in themselves, serve to make the common religion credible. At least since the time of Socrates, the business of radical philosophy has been to challenge and oppose this common religious consciousness. Now, to get to the point: this radical, heretical philosophy was decisive in the creation of the world’s first large-scale secular republic.

Q. Your book contains a good bit of information about the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Why is he important to the story of America?

Stewart: America’s founders were really just the tip of the spear. The great philosophers were the ones that made the spear and hurled it into the air. I’d like to build a second Mt. Rushmore, with philosophers in place of presidents. The first one up would be Epicurus.

Epicurus figures in the story partly because he is an excellent representative of the strand of philosophical thought that I call “radical” and that other people tend to call (a little simplistically, if I may say so) “materialist,” “secular,” or “atheist.” I could have used other philosophers as representative in this way (Socrates, Anaxagoras, and Democritus come to mind).

The most important reason to favor Epicurus has to do with his impact on the European mind in the early modern period. Even the great philosophers of the seventeenth century needed their wake-up calls: someone to shake them out of their conformity, make them realize that they can do more than merely apologize for the oppressive theocratic order into which they were born. Epicurus, with the help of Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things, provided that shock.

Epicurus (together with Lucretius) also matters because his philosophy shows up at critical moments in the development of America’s revolutionary philosophy. When Philip Freneau (“the poet of the American Revolution”) wanted to reveal something essential about Nature’s God, he spoke in the language of Lucretius. And Thomas Jefferson famously confessed, “I too am an Epicurean.”

Q. What other philosophical sources did key founders rely on?

Stewart: If we limit ourselves to sources relied upon directly, then American philosophy would appear to be mostly British in origin. The most famous influence was surely the English philosopher John Locke. A deeper look – in Jefferson’s student notebooks, Franklin’s early writings, and Young’s newspaper articles, for example – reveals a number of other, mostly British names: the philosopher-statesman Lord Bolingbroke, the revolutionary martyr Algernon Sidney, the metaphysical poet Alexander Pope, the deist Shaftesbury, the Whig polemicists Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, the freethinkers Anthony Collins and John Toland, and various Scottish philosophers.

But the more interesting question turns out to be: Upon whom did these sources rely? The early British Enlightenment in reality served to transmit a radical, core philosophy that was forged largely in the seventeenth century, and mostly in continental Europe. Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Pierre Gassendi, Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes were all key contributors. In my view, the philosopher who put it all into a single, hugely influential system that best explains the radical foundations of the American Republic was Spinoza.

So, if I had to fill up the four slots on my philosophical Mt. Rushmore, next to Epicurus I would put Spinoza, Hobbes and Locke.

Q. In 1822, Thomas Jefferson famously remarked, “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” It didn’t quite work out that way. What happened?

Stewart: Jefferson believed that light of reason is the best disinfectant. Possibly he forgot to mention that it must be regularly and vigorously re-applied if it is to be effective. With respect to the liberalization of religion in America, I think he was wrong about the timing but not the direction of history. The question remains: Why did he get the timing wrong?

One reason is that the American Revolution came early, perhaps too early, in the history of the modern world. The secular states of Western Europe acquired modern government only after they had modernized economically and culturally. In America, things happened the other way around.

The persistence of America’s exceptional religiosity stems from a variety of factors that make the country unique – though not always in a good way. One such factor was the institution of race-based slavery, together with the American system of apartheid known as Jim Crow and its racist aftermath. Another factor favoring religion has been the high degree of economic anxiety and social fragmentation built into the American way of life, coupled with a relative paucity of public investment and alternative sources of community.

Even allowing for these factors, however, we should not overlook the fact that religion in America has changed dramatically in the two-plus centuries since the Revolution. Most religion in America now conforms to the requirements of modern, liberal government, and the “center,” if it can be found, has shifted to something that in practice (if not in name) is close to what Jefferson had in mind for his Unitarians, or what he and his fellow deists tended to call “natural religion.”

Q. Scholars who study American religion say the nation is undergoing some fairly significant changes. Can you share some thoughts with us on where we’re headed as a nation when it comes to religious beliefs and how it might affect church-state separation?

Stewart: I am an optimist. While I’m sure that there is enough complexity and countervailing force in these developments to keep religious sociologists busy for decades, I see the overall trend as the belated fulfillment of Jefferson’s prophesy. In the future, I like to think, people will look back on the “Christian Nation” mythology as an aberration. They will see it as a counter-revolutionary movement that distracted and oppressed the American population for a couple of centuries. And they will be mostly right about that.

I’m also optimistic about the eventual impact of these developments on church-state separation issues. The system our founders bequeathed us is simple, elegant, and profound. It tells us that religious belief is essentially private, that it never can nor should be controlled by the state, and that, to the extent that its exercise involves voluntary association among like-minded people, it ought never be restricted. By the very same token, it says that the common good, not private religious belief, provides the only legitimate basis for collective action through the state.

The main reason why this system runs into trouble is that religious activists have desired to impose their religion on other people, and they have perennially sought the assistance of the state to do so. They have invented all kinds of euphemisms and double-speak to advance their cause against the plain meaning of the Constitution. They make specious claims about a “one-way wall” of separation, they talk about bringing religion “into the public square” when what they really want is to encode it in civil law, and they demand exemptions from the law in the name of their “religious liberty.”

In the fullness of time, I think we are entitled to hope that these religious activists will be recognized for what they are: a fanatical minority whose rights deserve respect but whose prescriptions can be safely ignored. Before we reach the fullness of time, however, there will be a lot of work required to repair the damage done by two centuries of “soft” religious establishment in America. The legacy of the present Supreme Court on issues like government-sponsored prayer and the inclusion of religious programming in public schools, for example, will have to be undone, and that will take much time and effort.