Saturday, April 25, 2015

Critical Reviews of Matthew Stewart's "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

In America's Founding May Not Have Been Christian, but It Sure Wasn't Anti-Christian, Robert Tracy McKenzie, chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, reviews Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. (Christianity Today 07/03/14):

... I'll leave it to the philosophers to evaluate whether Stewart has exaggerated the underlying atheism of this cast of characters. (His portrayal of Locke, at least, is sure to arouse controversy.) As a historian, I am more concerned by his utter failure to establish the influence of atheistic belief on America's founding. Historians believe that our most important task is to explain what we see, basing our statements of cause and effect on evidence. Stewart takes a different approach. He concludes that radical philosophy was widespread among common Americans after discovering it in the writings of two individuals, Vermont's backwoods leader Ethan Allen and a Boston physician named Thomas Young. In like manner, he finds that atheistic presuppositions determined the political philosophy of the most prominent Founders by ruthlessly disregarding all competing influences. This is pronouncement, not demonstration.
McKenzie comments further, on his own blog, Faith and American History:
Although Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots. In short, the emperor has no clothes.

Matthew Stewart, a self-identified atheist, professed in an interview with the Boston Globe that he'd "like the United States to become what it was always meant to be, which is a secular nation — more publicly committed to reason, to improving understanding, and promoting education", sans traditional orthodox religiosity of any kind. Curiously, notes McKenzie,
for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account.
Elsewhere, Baron Swaim (Wall Street Journal) deems that "Mr. Stewart's learning in philosophical radicalism is impressive; what undermines his work is his contempt for everyone but the few radicals he esteems." And Charles W. Cooke (National Review) corrects Stewart's mistaken charge that "the first Tea-Partier was an atheist."

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Update

Mark David Hall has published a rather devastating review of Nature's God for the Spring 2015 issue (pp. 285-291) Christian Scholars Review entitled "A Failed Attempt at Partisan Scholarship", which is reposted to the blog American Creation. He concludes:

... 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 (e.g. 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.*

[...]

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.

See, for instance, the approximately thirty-three founders and traditions profiled in Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, eds., The Founders on God and Government (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 (Oxford, 2014).
(Read the whole thing).


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