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Book Review: Founding Faith

November 26, 2010

Founding Faith bySteven WaldmanI don’t remember who recommended Founding Faith, How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty to me, but it’s certainly been worth the time to study.  As a non-historian I’ve been irritated by the polemical tone of articles I’ve read on this topic: either the Founding Fathers were deep and profound Christians who really intended to establish Christianity, or they were cold, logical Deists, aloof from all religious influence.  Neither of those perspectives rang true in my understanding of the FF’s as complicated men figuring out the implications of the Revolution they’d started.

The author Steven Waldman is a faith-head himself, a co-founder and editor at BeliefNet, which promises “Inspiration, Spirituality, and Faith” for its readers.  That in itself made me a little apprehensive; was it another compendium of highly questionable FF quotes scrambled together with rhetoric on Our Christian Nation?  As it turns out, no.  The book is all about context: he lays out a detailed story which I will attempt to summarize in a few bullet points:

  • Pilgrims and early settlers came here for “religious freedom”, all right; theirs, not yours.  Faith-on-faith persecution was shaping up here just about as it had been in Europe.  The FF’s saw that one coming a mile away.
  • In particular, the colonies were Protestant. Catholicism was persecuted, devalued, and Catholics were second-class citizens – and at 2% of the population, a hated minority as well.  (And God help you if you were Quaker or Jewish.)  Baptists were new and swiftly growing due to a religious revival that could only flourish in the context of no one Protestant faith having the upper hand.
  • Washington saw that for the continental army to function, it would need to be multi-faith.  It simply wasn’t practical to insist that everyone worship in a particular way. Interestingly, Catholics fought in the Continental army despite their low status, which influenced Washington’s perspective and also put me in mind of the heroism and sacrifice of gays who serve in today’s military.
  • Then as now, religion was a major motivation for war.  Patrick Henry: “Let it come!… Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!”
  • Even so, church attendance was a fraction of what it is today.  This may have been partly due to the fact that society was far more agrarian and  automobiles and nice roads were still 125 years in the future.
  • The original Constitution didn’t spell out rights; the Bill Of Rights was a promised addition to gain Baptist support.
  • The actual process of wording the First Amendment was hotly contested and full of political compromise.  The FF’s were NOT of a single mind, either with each other or, as the years passed, with themselves.  Each of them pursued a spiritual journey of their own, which is described insofar as it is relevant to the topic of the book.
  • The FF’s didn’t hold one view their whole lives either.  If anything, they mostly gravitated toward Unitarianism as they got older (except Patrick Henry!)  But in their voluminous writings it is possible to find small quotes which, taken out of context, support almost any understanding of them.  Taken as a whole, one might conclude that they felt entanglements between religion and government are bad for both.
  • The 14th amendment extended federal protections to citizens of the states. A number of important court cases are described that shaped how it is applied today.
  • No, they didn’t found the country to be Christian, and in the context of extended writing most of them didn’t intend for the states to have carte blanche of establishment either.  It is Waldman’s understanding that they would have liked how things have turned out.

That’s 378 words to describe a 208-page book (not counting 55 pages of Notes which I am still reading), so it’s definitely a short version. As I read I referred to my copy of the Constitution to compare early wording with current and amendments, and found it helpful to have a Google window open as well. It is a nuanced and worthwhile account likely to be rejected by people who want the FF’s to be their comrades-in-arms on one side or the other of the current culture wars.

But therein lies my dissatisfaction with the work; the author writes as if he is lecturing faith-heads and secularists who have been bound and gagged in front of him.  He says things like; “Yes, Thomas Jefferson – hero of modern liberals – believed in intelligent design”.   Just tell me, Steven; don’t assume I’ll be shocked by it.  He does this to both sides, and it’s distracting in the way of a movie actor who turns toward the camera and says something to the audience.  And he often attributes success against adversity to faith, the mechanism of which is still quite opaque to me.  But that is a minor quibble, because he deconstructs myths from both sides while sticking scrupulously to the topic of the book.

He performs thought experiments based on his readings of the FF’s: what if they were Governors instead of Presidents?  How (decades before the 14th Amendment) would they apply the 1st?  His assessment is that  each in their different ways, they’d think a state or local establishment of religion was a bad idea regardless of its legality.  Or this example on the posting of the Ten Commandments:

“Franklin would have caused the most mischief by agreeing to the posting of the Ten Commandments but only if all the other religions in the area also got representation.  Under Governor Franklin, the courthouse would have become a museum to all religious traditions – passages from the Quran and Bhagavad Gita side by side with the Ten Commandments”

Waldman’s recounting of liberal and conservative fallacies sounds about right to me, as does his understanding of the Founder’s various intents, based as it is on extensive study of original sources as well as historians (which status he disclaims).   I found his speculative chapters at the end very interesting.  But it’s hard to end without a “What the hell do I know?”  In my defense – against the charge that I have read only a handful of non-polemical books about Church and State – I would have to say that there may only be a handful of such books, that are accessible to non-experts who do not have unlimited time for learning the history of the issue.

Next book review: The Control of Nature, by John McPhee

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 27, 2010 at 05:04 | #1

    Loved this book. It does seem today that the “Oh, the Founding Fathers were all Ultra-Religious Christians” side of the debate gets more press than the “The Founding Fathers were all cool, dispassionate Deists: side, but the reality is that the Founders were of a variety of opinions (which evolved over time), but that they were most interested in coming up with a system that worked, vs. one that was true to any particular philosophical or theological stance. They mostly agreed that keeping any religion or sect out of power was far better than allowing any one of them to take over.

    Indeed, it’s only the mellowing of inter-Christian conflicts in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that allowed any sort of pan-Christian stance to be taken by the (now-called) Religious Right. And even there we’ve seen conflicts as Catholics are (or aren’t) included in the fold, ditto Mormons, etc.

  2. dof
    November 27, 2010 at 15:57 | #2

    Ah, so you’re probably to blame! Well thanks for the recommendation; as I said, it was the best thing I’ve read on the history of religious freedom in the US. (And now we can guess how long it takes for me to see a recommendation on something I’m curious about, buy the book, put it on the “Incoming” stack, read it, think about it, and write a review.)

  3. November 29, 2010 at 15:49 | #3

    ***Dave: “…they were most interested in coming up with a system that worked, vs. one that was true to any particular philosophical or theological stance.”

    Spot on! As I recall most of the Founders had practical political experience in the colonial or state legislatures prior to their crafting the Constitution and/or sitting in the first sessions of Congress or the Senate. I will suggest that made a significant difference in how practical they were, as opposed to how ideological they might have been.

    Put differently, their experience negotiating practical compromises to get roads and canals built, etc., may have had a lot to do with their indifference to ideological purity.

    You can contrast our Founders in that regard with the less politically experienced Founders of the French and Russian Revolutions. The latter two groups were much more ideologically bent.

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