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Random House sent me a copy of Steven Waldman’s new book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. It is with great pleasure that I review it today.

A great debate is now going on in America, at least among a segment of the populous. Are we a Christian nation or not? Plenty have weighed in on the issue, but most have a decided stake in the outcome, thus their objectivity is suspect. Steven Waldmanbrings a fresh and appealing objectivity to this discussion and his answers are surprising for both sides. Of course the answer to the question is yes…..and no.

In order to accomplish his task, Mr. Waldman looks deeply at five of our most famous founding fathers, Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin and Madison.  He examines the lives and writings of these five during the crucial years of revolution and beyond to the Constitutional Convention. Moreover he examines the colonies themselves and explains the types of governments that were set up and how religion played its part.

Basically the argument goes thusly today. The left claims that the founders were deists who were clear about separating church and state. The right points to innumerable documents, all, nicely containing words of faith, and thus concludes that it was a given that the newly formed country was based deliberated on Christian principles. Both are somewhat right, both somewhat wrong, according to Waldman.

Jefferson was arguably a Deist, but not much of one. He revised the bible to remove the miracle stories and felt most religions mucked up Jesus’ message. Most of the rest were firm believers and believed that God actively intervened in human affairs. Franklin might have has some polytheistic tendencies but they seemed to fade as he aged. Washington commonly wrote that divine providence guided the fortunes of the fledgling nation. Adams was perhaps the most orthodox and this caused great strain between himself and Jefferson for many years, though in later years they became fast friends. Madison probably had the most to say, and saw the conflict between government and religion most clearly, and thought religion would thrive as long as government couldn’t intrude.

What Waldman points out so very well is that that the resultant Constitution and its important Bill of Rights were a direct result of the experiences of the colonies with religion in their respective states. In nearly all the colonies a church/state system was initially devised. But in every case, only one religion was allowed to prosper. In the northern colonies it was Puritanism, and in the southern ones, Anglicanism. Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and later Baptists and Lutherans were ejected, jailed, tried, and sometimes executed. They were denied the right to own property, the right to vote, or to hold office. Some states were better than others, but religious intolerance was the name of the game.

Amazing as it may seem, the leaders in the cause of “primacy of conscience” were the Baptists, a new sect in that time and one that faced a good deal of persecution. Nearly sixty were jailed in Virginia alone during the time up to the  end of the revolution. It was here that many of the founding fathers saw first hand how terribly wrong religion could go if supported by the state.

Waldman points out that the Constitutional Convention saw the first truly interfaith dialogue WI participants from most of the Christian faiths meeting to hammer out a document all could live with. As one meanders through the documents and compromising language that was traded back and forth, men (yes all men) began to see that these “others” had valuable ideas to submit. They all realized they had similar concerns. Some like Jefferson saw organized religion as most inhibiting true spirituality. Others like Madison saw religion as hampered when the State intervened. Adams agreed, seeing that good religion like good ideas came out of the marketplace of ideas, not the pulpit.

The country, as time progressed and people moved out of the original colonies saw a decrease in church attendance. New sects were formulating on the frontier. Increasingly the representatives to the convention saw that religious liberty was the key to be pursued. It became known as “primacy of conscience,” and at least some of the early drafts contained that phrase.

There are wonderful stories about the various founding fathers in Mr. Waldman’s book. We learn of Washington’s banning his troops from  burning the pope in effigy as was commonplace once a year. We learn of Franklin’s business savvy in promoting Whitefield, head of the “;New Awakening” in his newspapers as “;good for business.” Jefferson is seems has a fairly abiding dislike for Papists and Jews, yet he thought of himself as “freeing” Jesus from the constraints of reglious dogma in his editing of the Bible and thus creating what we have come to regard as the “Jefferson bible.”

Adams too, detested Catholics, and was perhaps the most outspoken proponent of religion, yet he rejected a good deal of Puritan dogma and became a Unitarian in the end. Mostly he depended on religion as the most rational means of instilling morality in people and keeping their baser tendencies in check.  Madison concluded in the end that the best way to preserve Christianity was to protect it from the State, and his experiences in Virginia taught him that religious tolerance was both essential and prudential.

A real concern during the Revolutionary era was that England would send bishops to the new colonies and enforce an Anglican agenda upon them. This carried a great deal of weight for people like Adams who came from Puritan roots. He did much to foment the claim that Catholics in Quebec were about to assist the English in suppressing the rebellion. Religion did play its part in the revolution let there no doubt.

What few recall or know, is that this prohibition of establishment of religion did not initially apply to the states. Madison wanted desperately that it would, but he compromised that out of the initial document. He has wanted the Bill of Rights to apply equally to the states, which it did not until after the 14th amendment was passed after the Civil War. This amendment and its subsequent interpretation effectively negated the debate about what the founding fathers might have wanted. It definitively stated that whatever they believed or desired, religious freedom was now the choice for all America.

Mr. Waldman comes down to a conclusion that I think is quite supported by the evidence:

America was settled to be a Christian nation. To be more precise, it was settled to be a Protestant nation. Inhabitants of most colonies prior to the Revolution were not interested in religious pluralism or tolerance. They wanted society based on Protestant principles, with a strong mingling of church and state and vigilant antagonism toward Catholicism. Almost all of the colonies tried some variant of state-supported religion, and every one of those experiments failed. Perhaps the most important flare-ups of persecution came in a few Virginia counties, where they were witnessed by a thoroughly disgusted young James Madison. He and several other Founders looked at the wreckage of these experiments and concluded that official state religions led to oppression of minority religions and lethargy among the majority religions. [1]

In conclusion, I would first state that I found the arguments well supported. I found the main claims of Mr. Waldman enlightening. I certainly had been more convinced that most of the founders were deists and in this I was incorrect as I now see it. I had no idea, actually that the states were replete with official state religions either. So I learned a great deal.

I find his writing easy to read, and his organization well thought out, with a nice progression of proofs. About the only quibble I would have, and I am not sure it is valid is this: I have read extensively on the internet at least about this issue. It is not my understanding that the left has attempted nearly so much as the right to put fortha view using a lot  of twisted and out of context “proofs.” In other words, I think the ones who are most guilty of attempting to distort the truth are those on the right. While undoubtedly some on the left through unacceptable over zealousness have deliberately distorted facts to fit their theory, I have not found nearly the proof of that as I have as regards the right. Mr. Waldman seems to treat the two as equally wrong, and I see it as a bit more lopsided than that.

I highly recommend this book and actually think it would be well used as a text in schools and certainly universities. It does a fine job I believe of setting the record straight.

[1] p. 194