Sunday, April 13, 2008

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


Steven Waldman is one of the founders of Belief.net, a Christian-centered but religiously inclusive website for those interested in faith and daily life. Seems he has a new book out -- Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America -- that seeks to debunk some myths about the religion of the Founding Fathers and set the record straight. Sounds like a fair-minded and interesting book, which is especially needed since both sides in the "culture war" claim the founders in their camp.

Reviewed in The New York Times.

Nothing about the founders seems as interesting or as timely to us, 200 years and more farther on, as their religious views — who, if Anyone, they worshiped, how they marked the boundaries of church and state. As a Washington biographer, I have been assured, during the Q. and A. periods after talks, that George Washington saw the Virgin Mary at Valley Forge and converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed (why wait, if he had seen the Virgin 21 years earlier?). I was also once asked if he was an “illuminated Freemason”; I sped away from that question as fast as possible. Whether in legal briefs or op-ed articles, we are as passionate about religion as the founders were. Unfortunately, our passions make for a lot of sloppy and willful historical thinking and writing. In “Founding Faith,” Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and co-founder of Beliefnet.com, a religious Web site, surveys the convictions and legacy of the founders clearly and fairly, with a light touch but a careful eye.

Waldman wants to make two large points, rebuking by turns both sides in the contemporary culture wars. One common myth, he writes, holds that “the founding fathers wanted religious freedom because they were deists.” The First Amendment, in this view, is a conjurer’s trick designed to hold the rubes’ attention while gentlemen professed polite unbelief over their after-dinner port. In fact, Waldman writes, “few” of the founders “were true deists — people who believed that God had created the universe and then receded from action.” Many were orthodox Christians — Waldman lists Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Witherspoon (a Presbyterian minister) and Roger Sherman. The founders whose biographies fill our best-seller lists are a more heterodox lot. John Adams, a scrappy Unitarian, scolded Catholics, Anglicans and skeptical French philosophers as each passed under his eye. Benjamin Franklin flirted with polytheism in his youth but ended believing in “one God, creator of the universe,” who “governs the world by his providence.” Thomas Jefferson railed against the Christian church, past and present, as corrupting the teachings of Jesus, and made his own digest of Gospel sayings he considered accurate. “It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington,” Waldman quotes him, “after getting thro’ the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day.” Yet even these founders, Waldman says, “believed in God and that he shaped their lives and fortunes.”

According to an equal and opposite myth, America’s national origins were Christian. The 13 colonies, Waldman says, were indeed Christian polities, most of them indulging in persecution to uphold their ideals. But the independent United States “was not established as a ‘Christian nation.’” When George Washington was Revolutionary commander in chief, he mandated that his soldiers have chaplains and strongly encouraged them to attend divine service, but his own writings typically employed nondenominational language, appealing to providence rather than Christ. The First Amendment, which, along with its siblings Second through Tenth, was among the first business of Congress under the new Constitution, rejected a national religious establishment. States were allowed to maintain their own establishments, and some did so for decades, although James Madison had hoped to dismantle even these.


Read the rest of the review.


1 comment:

Tom said...

I am a descendant of Charles Carroll of Maryland, who for six years was the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence after Adams and Jefferson both died on 7/4/1826; was perhaps the richest American of his time; and was the sole Catholic among the Fathers.

Being a Catholic, he was barred from many political offices, practicing law, and voting!

I have doubts about Waldman's viewpoint, but I'll be eager to read his book [after first checking a hoped-for index in the book for Carroll references]. There is a so-called "Whig view of American history," that claims that America was all about a new vision of freedom, emancipating us from Old World orthodoxy. I'm unclear if Waldman is Whiggy or not, but there are cases to be made for wholly different, fully-as-well-documented perspectives of the flow of what The Fathers wanted.

So far as I am concerned, unless you're a justice on the Supreme Court, America belongs to the 21st Century now and discussions along these lines are only of academic interest. Attaching ourselves to what the Fathers wanted is a bit of magically thinking that persists.