ARUN RATH, HOST:
There is a peculiar phrase up high in the Declaration of Independence that asserts the right of the American people to assume, quote, "the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them." What exactly is nature's God?
The founding fathers were all at least nominally Christian. And a lot of modern historians have run with the idea that the phrase nature's God is an indication that the founders were basing the country on Christian morality. But historian Matthew Stewart says that's totally wrong.
In his new book, "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins Of The American Republic," he argues that the founders' concept of God was as revolutionary as their ideas about self determination and democracy. Matthew Stewart joins us to explain. Hi, Matthew.
MATTHEW STEWART: Hi, Arun - great to be here.
RATH: So can you tell us - back in 1776, what did nature's God refer to?
STEWART: So nature's God is one - a deity that operates entirely through laws - natural laws - that are explicable. And we have to approach this god through the study of nature and also evidence and experience. So it's a dramatically different kind of deity from that you find in most revealed religions.
RATH: Not the God of Moses who literally gave the law, you know, from on high - revealed in that way.
STEWART: No, that's right. And it also turns out to have a very different genealogy, if I may say so. Nature's God really descends from an ancient Greek tradition that was passed along to the early modern philosophers. And these were quite radical thinkers who were really challenging the ways of thinking of their time and the established religion. Many of them ran into trouble, but it was from them that America's revolutionary philosophers picked up their ideas and, in particular, the idea of nature's God.
RATH: And nature's God is a phrase that specifically comes from a tradition known as deism.
STEWART: That's right. It's called deism. But that was kind of a superficial term. And it was actually kind of a term of abuse in those days because if it was used interchangeably with infidel and atheist.
RATH: An insult hurled at people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But weren't a lot of the deists regular churchgoers?
STEWART: Yes, they did go to church. Bear in mind that religion at the time was an incredibly complex thing, and there were people of all different stripes of Christianity. And there were a fair number of quite liberal churches. In fact, Unitarianism really originates in this period. And in addition to that, the society was such that you pretty much had to go to church in order to participate in it.
So, you know, George Washington participated as a vestryman in his local congregation, but that didn't really imply any particular kind of religious belief. This was necessary in order to participate in the society. But I think by virtue of that Christianity being so widespread, in the way, it was richer and more open, perhaps, then it would later become.
RATH: You know, Jefferson, for all of his radicalism, he still admired the moral code of Jesus. So is there any harm in thinking of nature's God as the Christian God?
STEWART: There's no harm at all because you can think of these things in any way you like. And, certainly, Jefferson, like all of America's founders, appreciated the tremendous value and richness of the Christian tradition and of other religious traditions. The important point, though, is that he understood that value to lie in the morality, and this morality was ultimately based on reason.
RATH: I think for me the biggest revelation in the book was about the founding father I knew the least about - Ethan Allen, who was just way more revolutionary and interesting than I had any idea from high school civics.
STEWART: Ethan Allen was convinced that every planet out there has its own intelligent extraterrestrials. And this, as you can imagine, is a radical, inspiring, but very unsettling, idea.
RATH: Wild enough that they would have the idea that there could be extraterrestrial civilizations, but for them, that led to the conclusion, well, how can there be just, you know, one Jesus if - just on this one planet? That kind of pulls things apart.
STEWART: Yes, well, that's why it's a very unsettling thought because it's a way of recognizing that all of our past, all of our traditions - as noble and interesting as they are - are very limited. We're just one rock surrounded by this immense universe. So it comes with it a kind of humility, but also a kind of boldness that says, well, we can make the world anew. I mean, we don't have to stick with our traditions. Let's take what's good in them and move on and try something new. Maybe we can emulate the space aliens.
And I should point out, by the way, that for them, the space aliens were these nice people. They were kind of like us but maybe a little bit better, actually. They weren't the sort of paranoid, you know, world-destroying people that we think of now.
RATH: It was "E.T.," not "Independence Day."
STEWART: That's right, exactly.
RATH: Matthew Stewart is the author of "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins Of The American Republic." Matthew, very interesting. Thank you.
STEWART: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.