Book Review: Revolutionary Spirits by Gary Kowalski

There are two sides to most things and, generally, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Gary Kowalski’s Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers demonstrates the adage applies to views of how the founders of this country saw the role of religion.

Today, many on the Christian right argue that the intent of the founders was to form a Christian nation. Many on the other side of the aisle not only contend there was no such intent but that many of the founders weren’t Christians, didn’t believe in the Bible or were borderline atheists. Kowalski uses brief biographies of six founding fathers — Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — to show neither position has an exclusive lock on the truth. In fact, Kowalski’s work indicates that their religious leanings were largely a nature-based spirituality that incorporated some Christian doctrine but did not necessarily adopt the Bible chapter and verse.

Kowalski’s profiles show each of these individuals reflects their time. They were all part of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, a period grounded in applying reason and systematic thinking to not only the natural sciences but political philosophy. Kowalski, a Harvard-educated Unitarian-Universalist minister, explores each man’s interest in the sciences, be it botany, astronomy or mathematics, and how the analytical thought applied in those fields tended to carry over to their views of religion. Thus, while Adams was a regular churchgoer, most were Deists and not necessarily devout and confirmed Christians. They saw and found God not in revelatory scripture but in nature and life. They may have adopted elements of the teachings of Jesus as part of their belief system but still applied a skeptical eye at portions of the Bible. As such, Kowalski says, they were “religious liberals.”

Revolutionary Spirits occasionally intimates that their views were outside mainstream colonial or American thought at the time. Still, Kowalski leaves no doubt there were religious aspects to these men, even if they were not devout adherents to a particular creed. Yet their use of reason and evidence to reach conclusions also seems to have led them to a belief that no particular religion should be dictated to people. Instead, each person should be free to advocate and reach their own conclusions about religious beliefs, even if that meant rejecting religion.

Revolutionary Spirits does not advance any earthshaking contentions in this regard. It does, however, take a concise and handy approach toward the topic. Still, that approach has pitfalls. Perhaps the most glaring is that the six individuals tend to be examined in relative isolation. While we see how various ideas overlap between and among them, we don’t see how or whether their views were ultimately synthesized in the country’s founding documents. Thus, although all but Paine played roles in the Constitutional Convention and the eventual adoption of the Bill of Rights, Kowalski does not explore how their particular ideas were expressed, modified or rejected in those documents. Perhaps Kowalski believes such topics are better left for constitutional scholars or those who are wont to debate questions of “original intent” as opposed to a work aimed at a more general audience. To the limited extent mention is made of these issues, the book quietly raises the interesting question of whether their views mean those documents reflect mainstream political thought or were aimed at providing protection from the mainstream.

Those who believe the country was founded as a Christian nation may find Revolutionary Spirits one-sided and cite to various writings or statements by these individuals that contradict material used in Kowalski’s profiles. Likewise, those with the opposite views likely can point to other writings or statements excerpts they believe indicate the founders sought to establish a godless nation. Examining existing evidence with the reason he believes was fundamental to the lives of those he profiles, Kowalski makes a strong and highly readable case that the truth is at neither extreme.

Deeds mattered more than creeds.

Gary Kowalski, Revolutionary Spirits

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