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Patriotic Heresies



Rob Hardy


The United States has no state religion. Sometimes some of my fellow citizens forget this; Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, for instance, insists that our promise of freedom of religion applies only to Christians. It's not a rare opinion; Jerry Falwell proclaimed that "our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation." Well, no. Not if you look at the evidence gathered by Matthew Stewart in Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W. W. Norton). There may have been plenty of garden-variety Protestants among those who rebelled against England, but the men who wrote the founding documents and the ones whose names we know best were under the sway of deism, as were others that we don't pay much attention to. This is not a study of the degree to which Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and others were heretics in refusing, say, to grant a supernatural nature to Jesus. It is a detailed and lengthy examination of the history and formation over the millennia of the main ideas of deism, and how those ideas played a role in the formation and continuance of our country. Readers ought to come away with an increased awareness of how philosophical ideas really do make a difference in history, and how anyone claiming that a particular Christian sect was favored by our founders just hasn't appreciated the degree of heresy among them. 




These founders were not atheists, but they were frequently derided as such by their Protestant brethren. The classical deist position is that that some supreme being got everything started, like getting all the planets going around the Sun, for instance, and then withdrew. This creator did not father children, and he specifically did not father one to take a position on the cross to benefit others. He did not interrupt the flow of his creation by any unnatural miracle, either in the time of Jesus or in the time of later humans who might petition him to change things. Deists such as Franklin and Jefferson had high respect for the teachings of Jesus, but not for miracles like his virgin birth or his survival after death. The reason the founders often referred to "nature's God" (that's how Jefferson wrote him into the Declaration of Independence) is that they thought he only operated through the laws of nature, the laws that he had set up for us to understand. Thus, the study of nature, and specifically science, was the proper religious appreciation of the world we live in. Reason and the study of nature could give us insights about charity and justice. The founders who were deists admired their creator, and gave thanks for their blessings, but they were not held in their own time to be the sort of "godly men" Jerry Falwell would have admired. 




Stewart examines the history of such ideas way back to the ancient Greeks, especially Epicurus. It is a shame that his system of thought has given "epicurean" the meaning of "hedonistic." Epicurus liked pleasure, but he was no sensualist; he favored moderation and ascetic virtue as heightening pleasure and reducing pain. He felt that virtue could come by attending to our consciences, and favored pursuit of happiness with the full awareness of the physical world around us and of our consciences. The laws of nature, Epicurus taught, were laws indeed, lawful and not capricious. Like the deists who were to come, those who favored the ethics of Epicurus were thought by others to be mere beasts out to satisfy their swinish lusts, but that sort of pejorative view did not keep the most important philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from signing on as Epicureans, and broadening this way of thought. Many chapters here concentrate on the give-and-take between Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke, plus the poetic expression of Alexander Pope, forwarding the expansion of Epicurean ideas. 




It is hard to imagine our current leaders as being inspired by the writings of philosophers and then making laws in accordance with such inspiration, but that is what Stewart shows happened repeatedly, especially in the case of Thomas Jefferson. He read the philosophers in depth, and believed strongly in Spinoza's idea that genuine piety consisted of appreciating and studying nature. When Jefferson included in the Declaration "the pursuit of happiness" as one of the self-evident rights, it was the elevated form of happiness of Epicurus, the happiness of virtue, restraint, and temperance, rather than, say, the superficial happiness of acquisition or riches. When the signers accepted "Nature's God" in the Declaration, no one insisted that Jehovah or Jesus be designated by name. Those who wish to find God mentioned as giver of our law of the land in the Constitution will look in vain; those who point out that God is right there in the Declaration usually mean to say that it is their particular God, that is the God of the Bible. But Stewart shows this is precisely what Jefferson and his fellows did not mean. 




The distinction is important. The founders were not just seeking independence for their country but were interested in forming the sort of government that had never been before. Authority had previously come from on high; the king got his authority as a representative of God (and kings tended to like this interpretation). That isn't the way Hobbes, in particular, worked things out; he saw that the king got his power as a representative of a commonwealth. Spinoza said that "The king's sword or right is in reality the will of the multitude itself." When the Declaration says that governments are instituted among men and that they derive their power from the consent of the governed, it made these ideas literal, and represented a topsy-turvy notion that authority came from below, not from above. Connected to this was the idea that religion could be used to promote tyranny. Spinoza wrote, "The supreme mystery of tyranny, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak this fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation." Patriot James Otis wrote that "every devil incarnate, who could enslave a people, acquired a title to divinity." The founders distrusted relying on the supernatural, identifying religion as a private and inward communion one would have with the natural world, and this was one reason they insisted that government could not restrict it or impose an established religion. Jefferson even considered banning clerics from holding office, but Madison persuaded him that the prohibition of the establishment of religion would suffice. It was not priests, prophecies, or scriptures that were going to organize the new political world; look to reason, and evidence, and the world around instead. 




The founders of the nation were religious men, but they all knew that religion had a horrifying history of oppression. The deists promoted as religion, Stewart writes, "that which measures piety in terms of doing good rather than believing rightly; that which imposes a duty on oneself, as opposed to one's neighbors; and that which builds the bonds of community even while robbing the priesthood of its corrupting political influence." Current religious leaders, the ones who stress that their particular Christianity ought to be the belief of the nation, might not accept how much has changed, but Stewart points out that when religion held the power, people took for granted that it would register births, deaths, and marriages, it would set days that stores could open, and it would dictate what social behaviors would be tolerated. It is a triumph of the deists that we now take for granted that civil authorities, elected by the governed, are responsible for such things. Stewart's engrossing book is full of insights and warm admiration for the going concern of our nation, as started by the founders. He quotes Benjamin Rush, who said not long after independence had been won, "The American War is over; but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution."



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