Sunday, May 4, 2008

Book review: Founding Faith by Steven Waldman

Title Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Author: Waldman, Steven

Rating ****1/2
Tags religion, christianity, founding fathers, religious freedom, separation of church and state

Highly useful book on the religion of the Founding Fathers, and their intent concerning religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Founding Faith is a fair and balanced book, puncturing liberal and conservative myths about the topic with equal cheer, and more importantly, placing the discussion squarely within the historical context of what the Founders were doing and what it was possible for them to accomplish.

So were the colonies Christian? Yes, of course, and more, predominantly Protestant with considerable anti-Catholic bias. Most colonies did have an established church, mostly Anglican or Congregationalist, yet, after the revivalism of the Great Awakening period in the mid-1700s, the colonies were more religiously diverse than ever. The fear that the British Crown would force all the colonists to be Anglican was a factor in the Revolution.

Some of the factors leading the young nation into religious tolerance were pragmatic. George Washington, for example, was trying to forge a unified fighting force out of a religiously diverse group of soldiers. He had to quell the level of anti-Catholicism because he was trying to persuade the French Catholics in Canada to join in the Revolution.

Were the Founders Deists? No, they weren't, as even Jefferson and Franklin acknowledged the hand of Providence in the affairs of men. But neither were the five Founding Fathers that Waldman profiles orthodox Christians. Franklin flirted with a variety of religions, including Deism (the philosophy that God created the Universe like a watchmaker creates a watch, and then retreated from participation in his creation), but he also was was interested in the Great Awakening and thought the influence of Christianity upon the morals of people was a good one. Adams was more likely than the others to support government involvement in religion, but he moved more towards Unitarianism the older he got and rejected much of orthodox Christianity, thinking that the much that was good in it had been corrupted, but that its founding principles were still the best. Jefferson was similar but more so. Like Adams, he despised the influence of clerics throughout history. He rejected the divinity of Jesus and the miracles, but was so enthralled by the moral teachings of Jesus he twice cut apart Bibles and pasted the parts he thought uncorrupt into new documents and apparently read them often. Washington was the most silent about religion, rarely attended church, yet often used the religious rhetoric of his day. He did, though, speak of religious equality (for Jews specifically) . Most important of all was James Madison, who was the primary writer of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Madison did not leave behind a clear record of his religious views, but from what there is, he seems to have been more orthodox than the others. He was, however, of all of them, the most devoted to the idea of religious toleration. One of the factors that shaped this was his knowledge of the Baptist preachers in Virginia who were often jailed and beaten, and who had to go through lots of hoops to even be able to perform marriages. Madison believed that religious support for one church over others was BAD FOR RELIGION, as well as the state, that it oppressed some religions while making the dominant one lazy. He also thought it a weak faith than needed government support, as well as believing it was bad to force anyone to profess and be taxed to support a religion in which they did not believe. The original language of what is now the First Amendment refers to the "rights of conscience", an even broader formulation than what is in the current amendment.

One of the important historical points that Waldman made is that Madison was a politician, who had to be able to get the votes of other Congressmen to get the Bill of Rights passed. Madison did not get everything he wanted, and what was passed enabled those who wanted some religion in politics to interpret the result their way, as well as those who wanted a strict separation to interpret it their way. Most importantly, Madison did not get a law that applied the Bill of Rights to the states. This meant, for example, that states were perfectly free to establish churches, which most did, though they gradually disappeared during the first half of the nineteenth century. It wasn't until the 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War that the Bill of Rights did apply to the states.

Waldman's most important point, perhaps, is that many religious people did then and do now support religious toleration. "He [Madison] and his Baptist allies would be mystified by the assumption that being pro-separation means being anti-God." (p. 201). It seems no coincidence that the United Sates is one of the most religiously free, religiously diverse, and religiously flourishing nations on earth.

Publication Random House (2008), Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 1400064376 / 9781400064373

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