Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America's Founding Fathers. By Gary Kowalski. (New York: BlueBridge, 2008, Pp. 215. $13.95.); God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. By Thomas S. Kidd. (New York: Basic Books, 2010, Pp. 298. $26.95.); Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. By Maya Jasanoff. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 201 1, Pp. xvii, 460. $30.00.); Wellspring of Liberty: Hoxu Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty. By John A Ragosta. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, Pp. viii, 261. $34.95.); The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America. Edited by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Genda. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, Pp. vi, 401. $45.00.)
Neither scholars nor general readers have tired of the seemingly endless series of books examining the role of religion in the American Revolution and Founding. Five recent titles exemplify the rich diversity of approaches and demonstrate why arguments about this subject are consequential for understanding both past and present.
Gary Kowalski 's Revolutionary Spirits can be recommended to readers desiring a readable survey of the unorthodox religious opinions of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The theme of Revolutionary Spirits is a familiar one wherein prominent persons are not only studied in themselves but also serve to stand in for "America" itself. Revolutionary Spirits is right to remind us that American religion wasn't all Puritans. Of course, neither was it all Franklins and Paines. Kowalski neither surveys pious Founders such as Roger Sherman, Patrick Henry, or John Witherspoon nor provides any helpful social history about the American people themselves. Furthermore, Kowalski is quick to see progressive religious thinking at every turn largely because he's working with an imprecise dichotomy wherein orthodox or dogmatic religion represents an oppressive past and the Enlightenment means liberation and progress from that past. Ironically, Revolutionary Spirits also tempts creating his own progressive hagiography (e.g., Madison is a heroic "eco spiritualist"). Kowalski argues that his subjects exemplify an "enlightened" spirit of religion. Perhaps, but what Kowalski characterizes as the noble pursuit of reason and "unfettered inquiry to cast off ignorance and prejudice" may just as easily be attributed to indifference and pragmatism about doctrinal and theological matters - among both the Founders and their contemporaries or inheritors. And while Kowalski notes that the strains of American enlightenment were not as secular as Europe's, one must ask whether the desire of Kowalski's subjects to harness piety in order to make better citizens rather than better Christians is the creation of a civil religion that is potentially more useful but certainly no less impious.
A book likewise useful for general readers is Thomas Kidd's God of Liberty, an ideal starting point for appreciating the role of religion during the American Revolution and Founding. God of Liberty begins by arguing that the most important contribution of Christianity during this period was its theological reinforcement of existing republicanism and natural rights philosophy. For example, dissenting sects such as Presbyterians and Baptists could find common ground with less devout men like Jefferson or Madison on the importance of God-given rights. Devotees of ancient republicanism could seek common ground with Calvinista on the threat of human corruption and the need for virtue. Deists and orthodox men could likewise allude generally to the work of God in the destiny of nations. This consensus, built in the crucible of the second half of the eighteenth century, is called "civil spirituality" by Kidd. But in order to understand the role of religion as such in the Revolution and Founding, Kidd (like Kowalski) must work harder to delineate where piety ends and pragmatism begins. …