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!"
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 greatest generation.
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 religious freedom.
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 Waldman.
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 stand on.
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 thing.
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 amendment requires.
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 writings.
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 conscience.
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).
Founding Faith 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.
Madison, I 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.