- Religion and Politics in the American Revolution and Beyond
Religion’s role in the era of the American Revolution and early republic seems a perennial question. This partially arises from the topic’s difficulty—it refuses to lend itself to straightforward historical answers. On this front, historians have made some headway by recognizing that religion’s effects on revolutionary politics and society were varied (rather than univocal) and arose from multiple theological traditions and religious impulses. In different ways, religion in the Revolution affected Patriots and Loyalists, Federalists and Republicans, men and women, [End Page 475] free and enslaved. This range of causes and effects, however, calls for more complicated understandings and ongoing scholarship.1
Simultaneously, the question resonates broadly because many Americans sense that the issue embodies not only a historical ‘‘is’’ but a contemporary ‘‘ought.’’ That is, the place of religion in the Revolution, and the decisions reached at that time, have enduring significance because they speak to the character of the Revolution and, by extension, the subsequent American nation. To address both the scholarly debates and the implications of the answers, philosopher Matthew Stewart, independent scholar Scott Rohrer, and historian Thomas Buckley have contributed books worth considering. Although not explicitly arguing with each other, when placed in counterpoint they work together to produce fruitful historical insights.
Stewart offers an initial challenge in Nature’s God. Building on an intellectual genealogy of the Enlightenment he had sketched in The Courtier and the Heretic, Stewart seeks to describe what he believes to be the ‘‘real’’ religious roots of the Declaration of Independence and the entire intellectual and social project of the Revolution.2 To Stewart, the religious roots for his revolutionary Revolution come not from Christianity but from radical Deism. Rejecting earlier historians’ attempts to categorize or make distinctions in experiences of the Enlightenment or rationalist questioning of Christianity,3 Stewart reifies the Enlightenment as a singular intellectual movement traceable back to the ancient Epicureanism of Lucretius, indebted to Benedict Spinoza, and characterized by materialism. Further, any variety of free thought in the Anglophone [End Page 476] world had to be, at heart, atheistic. Deism was the ‘‘dirty little screw’’ (38) that made sense of the American Revolution and made it go.
In Stewart’s presentation, understanding the intellectual origins of the American Revolution requires beginning in Europe. Stewart traces the influence of Spinoza over both Thomas Hobbes (which historians have recognized) and John Locke (which is much more controversial). Stewart’s Locke is a radical materialist philosopher whose religious language serves as a smokescreen to cover his irreligion.4 This philosophy and radical politics were picked up by Britain’s republican thinkers, especially Henry St. John, 1st viscount Bolingbroke. Passing to America, the prototypical figures of the Revolution for Stewart are Ethan Allen and Allen’s mentor, Dr. Thomas Young. These two men’s stories provide the framework upon which Stewart attempts to stretch the superstructure of the intellectual trends of the American Revolution. In addition to Allen and Young, Tom Paine earns a prominent place, as do Thomas Jefferson and the young Benjamin Franklin. John Adams and George Washington appear in lesser roles when necessary to support a point. For Stewart, these are the intellectuals who matter, whose imported European ideals made the Revolution and made it revolutionary on the world-historical stage (73). Stewart simply dismisses prominent religious founders (Samuel Adams, John Jay), as well as the ‘‘enthusiastic’’ religious masses of Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists who supported the Revolution. In short, Stewart is offering a revisionist history that reframes the intellectual origins of the Revolution as Classical and Enlightenment only, with Spinoza the éminence grise whispering in Jefferson’s ear.5
Stewart is a...