by Steven Waldman. New York: Random House, 2008. 304pp. Cloth. $26.00. ISBN: 9781400064373.
Reviewed by John R. Vile, Department of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University, jvile [at] mtsu.edu.
The popularity of recent biographies suggests that Americans continue to revere the Founding Fathers and to look to them for answers for contemporary questions. Steven Waldman taps into this reverence by examining the attitudes of these Founders respecting religion and matters of church and state. FOUNDING FAITH suggests that the Founders, who distinguished themselves as statesmen rather than as theologians, are better guides to the latter than the former. Waldman further argues that even with respect to matters of church and state, their views are worthy starting points for further discussion rather than definitive formulations that can resolve issues of our own time.
After an initial chapter on early American settlers, in both North and South, who valued religious freedom for themselves but did not extend it to others, Waldman focuses on the views of Benjamin Franklin, and on the first four presidents. Each of these founders emerges through Waldman’s portrait as a religious man committed to fairly wide freedom of religion. Although none appears to have been theologically orthodox, none quite appears to fit the Deist label that scholars often attach to them.
Franklin’s views were among the most interesting. Although Waldman does not call him a Gnostic, the categorization seems to fit Franklin’s belief that an infinite God might have created individual Gods for different solar systems. While doubting the divinity of Christ and stressing a religion of good works rather than personal faith, Franklin expressed a Christian-like hope for the resurrection of the body.
Washington had a clear sense of God’s Providential Care over his own life and the birth of the nation, practiced toleration of Christian and non-Christian faiths both as a military leader and as a president, and may have been more influenced by his membership in the Masons than by his membership in the Episcopal Church. As president he issued Thanksgiving Proclamations and commended religion as essential to good government.
Adams long advocated state support of religion and was, through much of his life, strongly anti-Catholic. During the Revolution, Adams shared the idea that God was exercising his Providential care on behalf of the American cause, and, although he signed a treaty with Tripoli specifically denying that the United States was a “Christian nation” (p.160), some of the proclamations of Thanksgiving that he issued as president suggested that he believed God favored Federalist causes. [*252]
Jefferson, who concealed from the public his attempt to rewrite the New Testament to exclude accounts of miracles, admired Jesus as a great moral teacher but did not believe he was divine. Jefferson nonetheless garnered evangelical support and attended church services in the nation’s capitol building. Waldman provocatively suggests that Jefferson’s faith in God was based largely on his belief in a form of “intelligent design” (p.84).
Observing that there were more than 150 incidents of persecution of Baptists, which Waldman describes in vivid detail, in the vicinity of Virginia where Madison lived, Waldman suggests that these events shaped Madison’s views of religious toleration more than “ideas from Europe” (p.100). Madison advocated free exercise over mere toleration, resisted Patrick Henry’s plans for a religious assessment, and ultimately succeeded in adopting the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty that Jefferson had proposed. While scholars continue to debate Madison’s religious beliefs, Waldman believes that Madison strayed ever farther from the theologically orthodox teaching to which he was exposed at the College of New Jersey (today’s Princeton), but expressed confidence that more robust faiths, including Christianity, would flourish in a regime that honored freedom.
Charles W. Dunn (1984) has made the same point, but Waldman emphasizes that Deists and evangelicals were more likely to be allied than at loggerheads during the early republic. The Founders emphasized both faith and reason, and “Deists were using Christian language, and vice versa” (p.89). Thus, despite his heretical religious views, many Evangelicals strongly supported Thomas Jefferson, and Madison mustered Baptist votes to be elected to Congress. Waldman further emphasizes evangelical support for the American Revolution. This support stemmed from opposition to British recognition of Catholicism in Canada and to fears that Britain was about to establish Anglican bishops in America.
In contrast to those who would characterize the US Constitution as “godless,” Waldman believes that “it was pro-religion, but in a way that was not obvious to all.” More specifically, Waldman believes that “The Constitution demanded a paradigm shift, away from public responsibility and toward private” (p.134). In tracing the birth of the First Amendment, Waldman notes that pragmatic compromise might have been as important as the views of James Madison. Recognizing that the Amendment was initially designed to limit the national government rather than the states, Waldman does observe that the Bill of Rights was “intended to restrict government power, not expand it.”
Waldman’s discussion of the approaches to the First Amendment by the early presidents is especially important. In Waldman’s description of the letter to Danbury Baptists where Jefferson introduced the metaphor of the wall of separation of church and state, Waldman demonstrates that Jefferson specifically referred to a wall between the national government and the state, although more generally Jefferson also disfavored government encouragement of religion.
Waldman oversimplifies when he suggests that the decisive blow for [*253] separation of church and state occurred not with the adoption of the First Amendment but “when Lee surrendered at Appomattox” (p.189), but his point is that it took the Fourteenth Amendment, and subsequent judicial interpretations, to apply the First Amendment to the states. On one occasion when Waldman cannot be sure of details, he asks that readers “imagine” a conversation between James Madison and John Leland (p.137), but he generally avoids speculation and, on most occasions steers deftly between both liberal and conservative fallacies, which he uses as foils, respecting the Founders. Thus, he concludes that most Founding Fathers were neither Deists nor conservative Christians; he denies that the First Amendment mandated absolute separation of church and state while similarly denying that the idea is a twentieth century invention; he denies that separation of church and state is necessarily antireligious or that the Framers had figured out all related issues.
Waldman believes that Madison’s views on church and state were the most influential and the most profound, but he ultimately recommends avoiding “using the Founders as historical conversation stoppers” (p.196). The issue is not whether modern practices are “constitutional” but whether they are “wise” (p.197). Having highlighted the Founders’ own tolerant attitudes toward others, Waldman suggests that “we should all cut each other some slack.” He thinks most current debates address marginal issues, and that we should seek to understand those who differ from us as “inaccurate” rather than as “corrupt,” “mistaken,” or “evil” (p.198).
As the editor of Beliefnet.com and former editor of U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, Waldman writes in a readable style that will engage most readers and only occasionally shock more advanced scholars – as when he suggests gently slapping James Madison and asking him what he meant by the First Amendment (p.154)! Waldman’s endnotes and bibliography indicate familiarity with most primary and secondary sources. He knows that the Continental Congress added some of the references in the Declaration of Independence that scholars sometimes attribute to Jefferson and that Madison crafted a number of Washington’s documents that make similar references. Occasionally Waldman will miss an issue as when he reports (p.160) that Washington said “So Help me God” when taking his oath without indicating that there is a contemporary dispute about the matter, but he is generally aware of nuance. Thus, he correctly reports that the Constitutional Convention did not adopt Franklin’s proposal to begin each day’s proceedings with prayer and reasonably suggests, with reference to an earlier Continental Congress, that delegates may have failed to do so for fear that choosing a chaplain would further divide the group.
Readers interested in the Founders’ faith should also consult David L. Holmes’ THE FAITH OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS (2006), which has a particularly interesting chapter on the faith of founding wives and mothers, and Jon Meacham’s AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS, AND THE MAKING OF A NATION (2007), which is also written for a popular audience. Scholars who are more interested in subsequent legal [*254] developments, and especially in US Supreme Court decisions, can do no better than Martha C. Nussbaum’s magisterial LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE: IN DEFENSE OF AMERICA’S TRADITION OF RELIGIOUS EQUALITY (2008). Whereas Waldman highlights Madison and the First Amendment, Nussbaum’s book underlines the important role that Roger Williams and principles of equal protection have played in justifying religious freedom. Mark A Noll and Luke E. Harlow have further explored the continuing role of religion in the US in the second edition of their RELIGION AND AMERICAN POLITICS: FROM THE COLONIAL PERIOD TO THE PRESENT (2007). Ironically, at a time when scholars probably know more about the Founders’ own views of religion than ever, evidence also compels us to be less dogmatic in hypothesizing how they would have resolved today’s most divisive controversies.
Dunn, Charles W. (ed). 1984. AMERICAN POLITICAL THEOLOGY: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE AND THEORETICAL ANALYIS. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Holmes, David L. 2006. THE FAITH OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS. New York: Oxford.
Meacham, Jon. 2007. AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS, AND THE MAKING OF A NATION. New York: Random House.
Noll, Mark A, and Luke E. Harlow (eds). 2007. RELIGION AND AMERICAN POLITICS: FROM THE COLONIAL PERIOD TO THE PRESENT. New York: Oxford.
Nussbaum, Martha Craven. 2008. LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE: IN DEFENSE OF AMERICA’S TRADITION OF RELIGIOUS EQUALITY. New York: Basic Books.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, John R. Vile.