The American Revolution led to the creation of the world’s first secular republic. According to Matthew Stewart ’85’s new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, it was this secular break from the supernatural religion of the British that made America’s independence truly revolutionary. The book offers a reappraisal of the religious and philosophical origins of America’s revolution and shows that it was secularist ideals, not Christian values, that drove the establishment of America’s most cherished freedoms.
To explain his argument, Stewart investigates the prevalence of deism: the belief that an impersonal God expects humans to reason out their own ethical codes. This belief system, which finds its roots in classical, pagan philosophy, was held not only by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but also lesser-known figures like Thomas Young, instigator of the Boston Tea Party. It was these men and their largely secular, rational way of thinking that informed the ideas of personal liberty, religious freedom, and the proper role of governmental power — ideas that are now at the core of America’s most treasured documents.
Although the argument is complex, The Los Angeles Times reassures readers that “Stewart does his intellectual heavy lifting in graceful prose,” and “erudite witticisms lighten the mood.” Nature’s God was on the list of finalists for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
The book is not without controversy. Stewart, the author of four other books on history and philosophy, writes of his most recent contribution, “I like to think of it as a work of patriotic duty. It is my hope that many of those who most loudly proclaim their patriotism today will find in it much with which to disagree.” When asked in an interview released by his publisher whether the book will change the way we think about the revolution, Stewart replied: “One day, the broad majority of Americans will look back on this business about a Christian nation as a kind of deviation from out collective destiny. And when that happens, I like to think that some of them will remember my book.”