Founding Faith: Providence,
Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Most authors examining the Founding Fathers' positions on a hot current
issue ultimately are out to prove one point: "Glory be, the Founders
thought just like me!"
By Stephen Waldman
Random House, $26.95, 277 pp.
That's exactly the pitfall that Beliefnet.com founder Stephen Waldman
niftily avoids in his terrific new book, Founding Faith: Providence,
Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
Waldman looks at the development of religious freedom in America's
founding through the eyes of five Founders: George Washington, Benjamin
Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And while he clearly
favors Madison's view of church and state, Waldman
does not try to pretend Madison's was the only —
or even the majority — view of America's
Waldman is genuinely more interested in examining how religious freedom
developed in the United
States than in pushing a particular agenda.
The Founders he has chosen each had very different takes on church
and state — but, regardless of their differences, each was dedicated to
In the process, Waldman boldly gores the sacred cows on both sides of this
contentious topic, which makes this book both informative and
entertaining. Best of all, Waldman has an unusually light touch for a book on
such a heavy topic, preferring the rapier to the battle axe when he skewers a
dearly held myth. Fans of Richard Brookheiser are likely to enjoy Stephen
In short, fundamentalist Christians who believe most of the Founders would
make fine deacons in their church are mistaken. But, Waldman observes, the
critics who claim any of the ounders were rampant secularists in the
modern sense — or Deists, in the 18th century vernacular — hasn't a leg to
Waldman opens his book with an illustration of how current debates and media
cliches distort history, as Jefferson receives an enormous cheese inscribed,
"REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD," in honor of his
inauguration. Waldman notes:
"Are we surprised that some of the most important advocates for
separation of church and state were Evangelical Christians? If so, it is
because we too often view our history through the lens, darkly, of our culture
wars. In battles over prayer in schools… and other emotional issues, both sides
follow a well-worn script: the 'religious' side wants less separation of church
and state and the 'secularists want more."
So both sides think if they prove the Founders were or were not Christians,
it makes their case for current public policy. We get Tim "Left
Behind" LeHaye making the historically baffling statement that the
Founders had "beat back the attempts of the secularizers 200 years
ago." That, however, was not the argument -- a government
fiat banning religion from the public square in the 18th (or
19th) century would have led to another revolution.
In a lengthy article in The Nation in February 2005, Brooke Allen
trotted out the Deist argument, proclaiming "the Founding Fathers were not
religious men," in order to argue that would make them likely to ban
Christianity from the halls of government. Facile anti-religion know-it-alls
like Bill Mahr trumpet this as Gospel.
While he later proves this to be untrue, Waldman argues that the personal
faith-- or lack thereof-- of each Founder may be an interesting
to study, but it's beside the point.
"…(I)n the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding
Fathers, both sides distort history. Each has embraced a variant of the same
non-sequitor. In the eighteenth century it did not follow that one's piety
determined one's views about separation of church and state. Being pro-religion
didn't mean one was anti-separation. And being pro-separation didn't mean that
one was anti-Christian. In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of
history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to
have religious liberty. Freedom of conscience, as the Founders liked to call
it, is one of the most important characteristics of American democracy, and yet
the real story of how it happened is rarely told."
And Waldman does tell that story. His opening anecdote shows
American-style religious freedom owes its success to a political alliance
between Jefferson, the most secular politician of his time, and the era's most
fundamentalist pastors, Baptists inspired by the evangelical revival known as
the Great Awakening.
Another remarkable relationship was that between George Whitfield, the
primary Great Awakening evangelist, and Franklin, another Founder often tagged
with the Deist label. Whitfield's sermons, Waldman contends, prepared the way
for revolution as he preached that free men had the God-given "insight,
and right, to connect directly and interpret God's will… his first target was
the Miter, the Scepter was not far behind."
Whitfield was as "media savvy as any televangelist," and Franklin,
the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, gave him front page coverage and
serialized his sermons. A cynic might argue that Franklin merely found Whitfield provided good
copy or recognized the political advantage in freeing colonists from the yoke
of the Church of England. Franklin,
however, later wrote about the civic usefulness of religion chosen freely
and argued that America's
success would depend on God's favor —e ven if Franklin had grave reservations about the
divinity of Christ.
Waldman contends that the American Revolution probably would not have
happened had countless evangelical pastors not given their parishioners
permission to rebel against tyranny — which, in their mind was as much
represented by the Church of England as by colonial governors or British
generals. The rhetoric was so ubiquitous that a Hessian mercenary in a letter
home called the Revolution, 'the parson's rebellion."
Try to find that in your kid's history text.
Waldman argues that the persecution of Baptist preachers in Virginia in the 1760s and '70s was highly
influential in forming Madison's
strong opinions against the church having any support from the state.
Ultimately, the same denomination formed an alliance with Jefferson (against
whom pro-Adams election rhetoric framed the choice as between Jefferson and
God) to separate the institutions in ways unprecedented at the time.
That's right: Separatimg church and state was a fundamentalist Baptist
Anyone who really wants to understand the constitutional arguments about
church and state should read Waldman's excellent account of the debate over the
First Amendment. It deals a blow to both those who say that the idea of the
separation of church and state is purely a "20th Century
invention," and to those who argue aggressive secularization is what the
Both arguments become untenable in the face of the fact that a versions
stating advocating everything from merely stating that the government was
merely prohibited from favoring one denomination over another, to Congress
being prohibited from even "touching" the subject of religion
were offered and voted down. Interestingly, the arguments over what the
ultimate compromise really meant, began as soon as it was ratified.
Even though he (rightly) considers it beside the point, Waldman takes
the time to explode the Deist Founders myth. Even Franklin and Jefferson who
toyed with the faddish label -- though neither could be described as any
kind of orthodox Christian -- both wrote extensively of a God who was active in
the affairs of men, and believed that the success of their republic depended on
his favor. That's the direct opposite of Deism, which believes God created the
world and left it to its own fate.
It's not surprising that Franklin or Jefferson might try to put their own
stamp on what true religion ought to be and what God must be like based purely
on how they would do it; but it's a little startling to read that Adams, known
for his piety, would rebel so thoroughly against the orthodox Protestant
doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works.
I think Waldman puts a little too much stock in the fact that neither
Washington nor Madison ever discussed the divinity of Christ in their writings.
The fact is, that both had active enough religious lives, and wrote extensively
enough on a wide range of subjects that if they had strayed from orthodoxy, it
is likely that it would have shown up in their writings. These men were
undertaking no less a task than changing the world and the way free men looked
at government. They had no qualms about wrestling with orthodoxy in their
One of these revolutionary ideas was that the faith of the ruling party
would not become the official religion of the state. After all, the Founders
were Englishmen whose history was replete with civil wars between Catholics and
Anglicans and persecution of Puritans and other separatists who occasionally
acted no better when they had their day in the sun — Oliver Comwell, for all
his strengths, was hardly a model of religious tolerance.
Even after the Revolution, it was not a slam dunk the religious liberty
would be the order of the day. While it's true enough that many
settlers came to America fleeing religious persecution and seeking the freedom
to worship as they pleased, few were interested (with the notable
exception of Rhode Island) in protecting others' freedom of
Waldman examines the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and
Madison to glean practical illustrations of how the theories of the First
Amendment were practiced. Here, his affection for Madison possibly gives slight short shrift to
Washington who-- as in nearly every other aspect of the Presidency —
established a pattern for future presidents. A good example is the
American tradition of giving God his due, but in the most inclusive language possible,
was set by our first Chief Executive (though the notion of
"Providence," Washington's favorite term, is unmistakably Christian).
gives everyone from laymen to Supreme Court justices (who
shouldn't need it but obviously do) a basis for discussing church/state issues
in a sound manner. It's a lively book, likely to provoke lively discussions.
Unlike most treatments of the subject, however, it has a good chance of
promoting informed and civil arguments.
Here's my take on one constantly argued issue: If these five Founders formed
your City Council and the topic of the Christmas manger scene came up, John
Adams would speak forcefully in favor. George Washington would vote in favor,
but urge tolerance for all. Franklin
would vote yes saying it's a fine tradition and good for the community.
think, would argue against, saying that public money cheapens the sacred symbol
and offer a contribution to build one on private property. Jefferson
would vote no, perhaps forcefully so
However, about five minutes after a Supreme Court had the effrontery to rule
it was unconstitutional, Jefferson and John Adams would reconcile their
personal differences, give Sam Adams a call, and together go build a creche
with their own hands in front of City Hall in defiance of judicial tyranny.
Waldman wraps up his book by celebrating the Founders' success in
establishing a society that has proven their "Founding Faith" that
"true religion" only needs liberty and a free market of ideas to
flourish. Compared to the moribund state churches of Europe,
that is undoubtedly true.
The author perhaps is a bit too dismissive of the importance of current
topics, such as school prayers and the secularizing of the public square;
but in a historical context, and in light of what was going on in the world at
the time of America's founding, this little victory lap is more than justified.
Ultimately, the radical idea that the individual had
the absolute right to choose one's church, as well as one's mate and one's
occupation, was vital to creating the New World
the Founders envisioned, and led to the dynamism that is American liberty.