Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic is, at least to my mind, one of the most interesting, readable and important books I have read in 2014. I could hardly put it down. It reads easily and demonstrates quite convincingly most, though not all, of the author’s claims.
Stewart argues that the ideas which directly shaped the American revolution were largely ancient, pagan and continental (i.e., European not English). The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, and the natural divinity of the Dutch Jewish heretic Benedict de Spinoza (photo at right), largely shaped the views of most of our American founders.
Stewart draws deeply from a study of European philosophy, without becoming bogged down in ideas that you cannot comprehend. He shows how the philosophical ideas of the founders were shaped by thinkers that were anathema to the clergy of the time. These American revolutionaries hated the idea of God’s law and rejected supernatural revelation.
When you read the Declaration of Independence you should ask questions: “What is meant by Nature’s God?” “What does the term self-evident mean?” The question that deeply interests me is this: “What did they mean by the pursuit of happiness?” I have always understood this phrase to mean: “the freedom to live your convictions and earn a living, etc.” When each of these terms is understood on its own terms, within the actual context of the philosophical ideas behind them, you soon realize that these words were anything but Christian. And these were not simply Thomas Jefferson’s radical ideas but those of almost all of the leaders of the time.
The term “nature’s God” provides a good example of my point. This is language which means, in both its origins and context, the god who is nature. It is radical monism and leads to a view that says god=nature! I know that comes as a shock to many who read these words but if you doubt them read Stewart. Then go back and read the best material you can find about the Revolution and the founders’ ideas. Read them critically and look for the clues. Understand them in their own context. Do not let modern Christian popularizers foster the myth of our founding ideas without learning the truth. In this case the truth is far more interesting than the myth.
In addition to this deeply flawed view of American history regarding our true origins, there is the view that the founders and framers held of Catholics. Their hatred for all things Roman Catholic left a spiritual blight on America that has only recently begun to recede. What became a “Protestant Nation” early in the 1800s was very definitely an anti-Catholic one up to and well beyond the Civil War. (One could argue that this was there case to right up the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960!)
Finally, the myth about America’s “Christian” origins is ludicrous to serious historians. More importantly, it is down right dangerous to the renewal of the church and firm belief in the gospel, not the gospel of America. Friends, I am not making this up in order to attack conservative Christians. Quite the opposite. As a confessional Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord I want to see the church reject myths that clearly hold us back from a deep renewal of the Spirit. I sincerely, and now more passionately, believe these “myths” about Christian America’s origins harm the work of true mission.
When I finished reading Stewart I asked one question: “How did a nation founded on such radical ideas evolve into one that did become a great culture in which Christian faith and Christian churches could flourish?” I believe the answer is complicated but in short there are two parts to it. First, the revivals in the early 1800s played a huge role in recovering the gospel and the practice of true faith. Second, the freedoms granted to us by these radical thinkers left a door open for Christians to do mission freely and though our story is mixed, at best, we evangelized quite well in this free land where our various expressions of faith were freely permitted. My deepest concern now is that we no longer evangelize well and the philosophical ideas that inform our system of law and government will not sustain us unless the righteous live by faith in the Son of God (cf. Romans 1:16-17). Only then will our good works bring glory to God.
We are presently living in a time when the radical ideas of our founders are actually becoming more prominent than most of us realize. This is why the Tea Party gets the narrative of our nation right on one level but profoundly wrong on another. The Tea Party gets right the fact that “the people” are the government and that they alone have the “unalienable right” to overthrow a government that they believe is not the government of the true sovereign, the people. Both liberal and conservative voices now contend that the Tea Party does, in a simplistic and at times distorted way, represent the founders ideals. In reality, neither conservative nor liberal voices are precisely right in how they use this narrative. The truth is that the founders believed that the people had the right to directly control their own destiny and political direction and if this direction was not consistent with their own rights then they had every reason to overthrow their government because it was not a government “of the people.”
The reality is this – a nation founded on such revolutionary ideas cannot stand unless there is something more transcendent to hold it together. On the whole we have several generations who now think this “glue” is themselves! So far the republic still works. Time will tell how well it can work.