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Questioning America’s Christian roots

Jessica A Kirschner

Boston-based writer Matthew Stewart, author of “The Courtier and the Heretic’’ and “The Management Myth,’’ takes the history of ideas seriously, but his books read like intellectual detective stories. His latest book, “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Revolution,’’ in the works for a decade and published this week by W.W. Norton, argues that the American republic was founded not so much on Christian principles as deist ones, reserving religion for personal practice not policy guide. “Nature’s God’’ is an expansive philosophical history. Not satisfied with “myth-busting,” Stewart takes us all the way back to Epicurus, who believed happiness was the goal of life, to trace a lineage of radical philosophy up to the American Revolution, and today.

Q. Where did this topic start for you?

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A. I started making connections between Spinoza and Locke, and the American Revolution. But I didn’t understand that connection until I came across Ethan Allen’s “Oracles of Reason.’’ I was blown away by this 200-year-old curmudgeonly work, because it made clear that there was this continuity of radical thought from the Dutch Enlightenment to America.

I was amazed at the disconnect between the richness of these facts and the tawdry and quite bigoted version of the American Revolution of someone like [evangelical Christian writer] David Barton. The conservative interpretation of American history says that wherever the word “God” appears it’s obviously our God, it’s obviously a Christian God; it’s usually an evangelical God. The simplest point I’m making is: That is just absolutely not true.

Q. Where do you go in history to start proving that point?

A. I set out to interrogate those notions you heard in elementary school: The United States is an enlightenment nation, it was a product of enlightened thought . . . What is the Enlightenment? It’s been portrayed as a collection of platitudes: Use your head; look before you leap; and as being compatible with the existing religion. I disagree.

Q. So what role does religion play?

‘The conservative interpretation of American history says that wherever the word “God” appears it’s obviously our God, it’s obviously a Christian God; it’s usually an evangelical God. The simplest point I’m making is: That is just absolutely not true.’

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A. Most religions assume that you find purpose through some agent that sits above or outside the world and imbues it with purpose. Radical philosophers, beginning with Socrates, through Epicurus, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, have undermined that idea. They say the way we find meaning is not through some transcendent source that lays it all out for us, but rather in an immanent way, from our own searching and our own drives.

Q. Where do you come down on the distinction between “immanent” and “transcendent”?

A. For me the only sources of moral values are the pursuit of understanding and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not too concerned about persuading people to accept some set of beliefs dogma to bring that about, because I think it comes from more inherent conditions.

Q. Self-evident, one might say.

A. Yeah, I’ll go with that!

Q. Tell me about Thomas Young, the founding father we’ve never heard of.

A. He’s my hero! It’s pretty amazing to me that he’s not better known. He was a street warrior kind of guy, and so he didn’t make it into the kind of dignified ranks of people who got to work on policy of the time. But he was . . . the Zelig of the American Revolution.

He shows up in 1765, in the first major act of resistance, the Stamp Act riots, as the leader of the “Sons of Albany.” He’s so excited that he moves to Boston to join the radicals there. He quickly rises to become the right-hand man of Sam Adams. He helped set up the Boston Committee of Correspondence, hugely important in building the revolutionary movement. He was the bad guy who said “Let’s throw the tea in the harbor,” and everybody else, including Sam Adams said “No, that’s rash.” But two weeks later that’s exactly what they did. He’s the street warrior who rouses the rabble and makes the revolution happen.

Q. Do you see the ideas of the American Revolution as still ongoing?

A. There’s an aversion to grand historical narratives, but it seems to me irresponsible to contend that history is just one damn thing after another, and ideas don’t matter. We are in a dramatically different world now than we were 200 years ago. And a dramatically different world 200 years ago than we were 2,000 years ago. So we have to come up with and explanation for that.

Q. Do you have a vision for how you’d like to see your explanation used in the public discourse?

A. I’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. I think over time all this will spread around the world. Two hundred years is nothing.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden’’ and editor-in-chief of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion, culture, and politics.
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