The American patriots who were directly responsible for the founding of our nation were considered, by almost all orthodox Christian ministers at the time, to be “radicals” and “atheists.” So goes the essential claim of philosopher/author Matthew Stewart in his exciting new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W.W. Norton, New York, 2014). His claim is, at least to my historical mind, beyond reasonable doubt. What is more intriguing to me is why and how we have lost our collective awareness of the real philosophical and religious origins of our nation.
The standard narrative goes something like the following as I understand it:
American was founded by deeply religious men. Some of these men were deists but even these deists respected Christianity. For this reason they favored it, at least in terms of the dialogue about the nation’s political and religious future. Most of the framers and founders were members of churches and most all of them were honest, Bible-believing, orthodox Christian men. Yes, they used ideas they borrowed from men like John Locke but even Locke’s ideas were essentially consistent with Christian political and social thought.
These founders were holy men who prayed for their new nation, prayed over their work in creating this nation (The Declaration and Constitution, etc.) and personally committed America to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They did not write the name of Jesus into their documents but this does not negate the presence or reality of Christ in all these developments once you understand what these men really believed. They desired to allow others (non-Christians) to live in peace in a just and Christian society but their purpose was to frame a godly, Christ-honoring nation.
The first presidents were all Christians, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson. Each man swore allegiance to God on a Bible and each believed the Christian Scriptures as the Word of God. Prayer was a part of their lives, thus the nation’s origin. And American ideas of freedom were built upon piety, prayer and the Bible.
Thus we are, at least in this (limited) sense, a Christian nation!
What if I told you that I do not believe anything essential to this mythical story?
Many will scream “heretic” and dismiss me as a liberal. Some already believe that so now I have simply proved it to be so.
The odd thing about this reaction is that if you go back with me in time to the decades leading up to the American Revolution, and then read the major and important writings from the first few decades following the War of Independence and the formation of the new nation, you would agree with me. I would have been seen as an orthodox Christian in my understanding of the nation and its philosophical origins in 1800.
Let me give you one striking conclusion that I had never realized so powerfully until I read Stewart’s most readable book. The first five presidents of the United States were not Christians! (Yes, George Washington expressed piety and went to church but his own private writings suggest, as do some of his personal actions, that he was not an orthodox Christian in the most liberal sense of the term “orthodox.”) These presidents understood that a significant number of American citizens were Christians, and quite a few more acknowledged the Christian religion in formal ways, but most were not Bible-believing, confessional, orthodox Christians.
What happened then if the founders were not Christians? The best answer is this – after the formation of the nation in 1789 the spirit of atheism (which is at heart deism as Stewart argues so eloquently) prevailed in morals and ideas. This was especially true among the leaders of the country. (Yes, there are a few noteworthy exceptions to this sweeping conclusion!) What then happened began at Yale in 1801, when President Timothy Dwight challenged his almost entirely skeptical and unbelieving student body to debate him about the power and authority of the Bible, is “the rest of the story” (and one not told by Stewart). What happened is that a genuine revival broke out and swept across America’s colleges, changing the tenor, morals and direction of the nation in a new way. But prior to this awakening religion was mostly a formal prop for radical ideas that are only remotely connected to historic Christianity.
The ideas that inspired the founders were neither British nor Christian. They were largely pagan, ancient and Epicurean. The ideas this nation was built upon would have been directly challenged by the apostle Paul if I understand him at all. More about this tomorrow.