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221_arts_books_reeNature’s God by Matthew Stewart (WW Norton, £20)

The Christian right in the United States is built on the claim that, as Jerry Falwell put it, “our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation.” At first glance Falwell seems to be right. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams et al certainly saw themselves as followers of Jesus, and their paeans to the American revolution were tinged with apocalyptic theology. But as Matthew Stewart explains in his splendidly polemical account of the philosophy of the founding fathers, they did not “do God” in the way contemporary Christian conservatives do. They had no truck with ordained priests or the mysteries of the Trinity. They had little use for traditional ideas of creation, revelation or divine command. And they were glad to make common cause with a bunch of atheist pioneers whose exuberant materialism, long hidden from history, is vividly evoked by Stewart. 

Stewart may go too far in presenting the founding fathers as brazen infidels, but he is right in saying that they converged on a fundamental principle of secularism: that righteous citizenship depends on the courageous exercise of reason rather than on piety, obedience or faith. The history of the American republic has been written, on the whole, by authors intent on obscuring its radical origins. If this vigorous book wins the converts it deserves, then a new generation of patriots may rise up to celebrate the US not as God’s own country but as the oldest and greatest atheist nation.

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