Robert Tracy McKenzie on Matthew Stewart’s "Nature’s God"

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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