From the November-December 2016 issue of News & Letters
Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014).
In its attempts to remake the U.S. into a Christian fundamentalist theocracy, the religious Right has made historically revisionist claims that a fundamentalist theocracy is what the nation’s founders had intended to establish rather than a pluralistic, secular democratic republic.
Although many of the quotes they attribute to the founders have been made up, they have misrepresented some of their actual words as being supportive of a theocracy, especially the words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence relating to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator.”
The average person opposed to theocracy knows that many of the founders were deists, but many have only a vague understanding that this meant something about a god creating us and then leaving us to run our own affairs. Matthew Stewart wrote this book to debunk the theocratic revision of history with the knowledge that the founders’ intent to create a democratic republic was based, not on religion at all but on an engagement with philosophy that was more intense, complex, and subversive than even he had realized.
GOD: INTERESTED OR DISINTERESTED
Stewart delves into the history of the complex philosophy of deism starting with the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus theorized that the universe was composed of “atoms,” particles of matter that obeyed observable laws of nature. Epicurus stated that the gods were simply beings with no interest in rewarding or punishing humanity.
Later philosophers considered this self-sufficient universe, which is full of life and functioning by predictable laws, to be the body of one God (pantheism); and others considered that the predictable laws meant that there was no God (atheism).
However, God was not a being made from a different substance from everything else and violating the laws of nature with miracles (transcendence). Our actions are rewarded and punished by cause and effect, and we feel happy by doing good and unhappy by harming ourselves or others. Faith is unnecessary because God is understandable (self-evident). Devotion to God really means studying nature through science. That includes studying human nature in order to determine right from wrong.
Stewart follows how later philosophers, especially the ones who had the most impact on the American Revolution, saw the implications of this deism in how people should govern themselves. If people would all apply themselves to self-knowledge, they would understand that harming others harms themselves as a result of natural law. Since not everyone is doing this, there is a need for human beings to form a society and protect each other through civil law. Through trial and error, people have developed democracy as the best form of government.
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
Stewart uses the writings of the founders to show that they criticized the supernaturalism of Christianity, which allowed its clergy to cruelly control the masses. However, they sometimes praised it to support what Stewart calls “popular deism.”
They felt that, since not everyone would attempt to understand ethical behavior through self-knowledge, they needed a code of morality common to all religions and based on the rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, they thought religious belief was a matter of personal freedom. It should not interfere with the state, and the state should not interfere with it.
Stewart touches on some implications of the founders’ use of philosophy in creating the Revolution that could be discussed further in a sequel. He states at the end that the American Revolution is still unfinished and that “Christian nationalists” are part of the problem that needs solving.
This book is a useful resource in proving that the founders wanted democracy and not a theocracy. Nature’s God only briefly mentions the religious Right’s threat to democracy, but is important in combatting it. As Stewart states: “I wrote this book to encourage others to join the struggle.”