Book Review: Founding Faith by Steven Waldman


Founding Faith (2008) by Steven Waldman examines claims made in today’s “culture wars” regarding the religious beliefs and intentions of America’s Founding Fathers.  Did the Founding Fathers create the United States as a Christian nation with religion a core value in government as today’s Christian conservatives claim?  Or were the Founding Fathers really Deists and secular humanists who set up a solid wall between church and state as liberal commentators believe?  Both sides cherry pick quotes to back up their arguments and in a sense both are correct.  And both are wrong.

Waldman conducts an illuminating historical survey of the so-called Founding Fathers and their views on church and state. Waldman focuses on five particular leaders of the Revolutionary and early Federal era: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.  Turns out that the Founding Fathers didn’t agree with one another and like many of us their views changed over the course of their lives.  All of them were spiritual and to a certain extent Christian (although none of them to the strict standards of today’s Christian evangelicals) and believed religion was important to the morality of a society.  All believed that religious freedom from government was a boon to religion and worked to protect religious expression.

Sometimes what they prohibited for the Federal government was acceptable for state governments.   Politics also played a role in that a strict seperationist like Madison would have to <gasp> make accomodations in legaslation to appeal a wider political spectrum even when it went against his political ideas.  Turns out that what the Founding Fathers said about religion and government was often deliberately vague because they hadn’t figured it out themselves.  What may matter more to us today is what we believe about church and state and not expecting to find cut & dry answers in the words of the Founding Fathers.

I really enjoyed this book and found it a good analysis of complex and nuanced issues.  It’s great that Waldman can go beyond myth-busting and side-taking to create a great historical and biographical work of religious issues in our nation.

Recommended reading to go with this book: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Favorite Passages

Careening through Adam’s contradictor writings on religion, we are reminded that just because the man was great does not mean he was coherent.  He thought Christianity perfect, except for many of its most important teachings.  He loved his Puritan ancestors except for their core beliefs.  He hated religions’ tendency to squelch rational though but admired its effectiveness at instilling morality.  The Founding Fathers were brilliant but, like all mortals, changed over time, and Adams in particular had no shyness about expressing his views in certain terms, even as he was still figuring them out.  Some of Adam’s views, however, only seem contradictory when seen through the prism of our current beliefs.  His contempt for hypocritical clergy was not a sign of secularism; his belief in an omnipotent God was not a sign of evangelism.  It’s just the way militant Unitarians were back then. – p. 38

Was Washington a “good Christian”?  By the defintion of Christianity offered by contemporary liberal Christians, he would pass muster.  He believed in God, attended church, endorsed the golden rule, and valued the behavioral benefits of religion.  More conservative Christians, however, generally believe that being a good Christian means accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior and the Bible as God’s revelation.  By those standards — those of twenty-first-century conservative evangelical Christianity — Washington was not a Christian.  – p. 59-60

This idea — that freedom comes from God — was the foundation for a new American conception of rights.  If rights resulted from a social compact — a practical way of allowing for mutual survival — then they certainly could by altered by the majority when it seemed practical or convenient.  If they came from God, however, they were immutable and inviolate, whether you were in the majority or not.  This had particularly important implications for wrestling with how to define and protect religious liberty.  Toleration assumed that the state was generously choosing to do the tolerating.  As Thomas Paine put it later, “Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it.  Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of witholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it.” A God-given right is something quite different. – p. 92-93

Thus, many conservatives have it backward.  In effect, the conservative accomodationists say that while Congress cannot set up an official state religion, anything else is fair game, since nothing else is prohibited.  Madision wanted us to think of it the other way around: Just because Congress is explicitly forbidden from doing one thing (establishing a national religion), that doesn’t mean that everything else is acceptable.  Madison wanted the opposite assumption — that any actions no mentioned and specifically sanctioned are prohibited.  This concept doesn’t apply just to restrictions on religion but to help for religion, too.  If Congress wasn’t explicitly granted power to aid religion, then it cannot.  Congress is not allowed to interfere, restrict, establish, discourage, or encourage religion.  In Madison’s mind, Congress had one simple assignment when it came to religion: Stay away.  – p. 154

Madison’s most important isnight was that it would lead to a distrust of religion.  It would be assumed, Madison suggested, that the invocation of religion by a politician was, well, political.  He and his Baptist allies would be mystified by the assumption that being pro-seperation means being anti-God.  How on earth does it follow that if you treasure religion, you’d want government touching it?  Church and state, when married, bring out the worst in each other, Madison would say.  If God is powerful, he does not need the support of the Treasury.

Indeed, to equate support for religion in the public square with love God is not only an insult to those God-fearing people on the other side of the debate, but also expresses a profound lack of confidence in God and a disconcerting shallowness of personal faith. – p. 201.

Authors: Waldman, Steven.
Title: Founding faith : providence, politics, and the birth of religious freedom in America / Steven Waldman.
Edition: 1st ed.
Published: New York : Random House, c2008.
Description: xvi, 277 p. ; 25 cm.

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