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Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.

Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. By Matthew Stewart. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2014. Pp. xii, 532. $28.95.)

According to the author of this book, "the founders of the American Republic" were much more radical in their religious and philosophical beliefs than anyone at the time or any scholar since has imagined. Matthew Stewart contends that "the principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American Republic" is Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and that "Locke is its acceptable face. So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things" (147-148). Stewart claims that most and nearly all of the founders were deists who were closet pantheists and, functionally, atheists.

From the beginning, the author posits without substantiation an extraordinarily broad definition of "deism," as opposed to the scholarly definition that he dismissively calls "classical deism" (175). His version of deism stunningly includes atheism and, operating under a false dichotomy, he assumes that anyone who was not incontrovertably an orthodox Christian was by default an atheist deist.

Stewart is a good writer and an engaging storyteller, but his scholarship is severely flawed. "This is partisan scholarship" says a supposedly friendly testimonial on the back cover of the book; that analysis is all too true. The author uses meaning-changing ellipses, partial quotes, and quotes out of context to make his case. This is particularly true of his abuse of John Locke in order to be able to use consistently "Locke-Spinoza" as an adjective. Stewart contrives to connect the two by partially quoting Locke out of context (e.g. 148, 149, 160, 164, 223, 245-246, 348) and by quoting Spinoza and others in support of a claim that Locke said something. Locke scholars will not recognize him here.

Thomas Jefferson is similarly made to mirror Spinoza against his will. A key to Stewart's understanding of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which to him is the key to the whole American enterprise, is the notion that God and Nature are synonymous and that Jefferson equates God with Nature. But in quotes supplied by Stewart himself, it is clear that Jefferson sees God as a supreme Being and specifically separates himself from the contrary idea (189, 190, 194).

In order to accept Stewart's argument, one must also accept his contention that the most important founders of America were Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, a twenty-something Ben Franklin, and a partially and conveniently quoted Jefferson. As for philosophical influences, we must ignore the men who Stewart admits were "in the revolutionary period regularly cited" and focus on a disfigured Locke and on Spinoza, of whom Stewart himself says: "There was--and is--no meaningful evidence of any direct influence at all in revolutionary America" (516, note 76, 3).

One valuable contribution of Nature's God is the author's highlighting of the role of reason among many of America's founders. Its complicated philosophical discussions are not reader friendly for the general public. Historians of the period will vacillate between incredulity, frustration, and outrage, but Nature's God will appeal to admirers of Spinoza and to particularly pugnacious atheists.

Gregg L. Frazer

The Master's College
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Author:Frazer, Gregg L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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