Liberating the Founders



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PAUL HARVEY

This week's Speaking of Faith features Krista Tippett's interview with Steven Waldman, who discusses at length Founding Faith.

From the Speaking of Faith newsletter, with more on the program:

Liberating the Founders

We liberate the founders from conservative and liberal captivity, by revisiting the real, messy history of religious history in early America with journalist Steven Waldman. We explore how this history might shake and reshape Americans' sense of what is at stake in current debates about the relationship between government and religion. Also, how a falsely harmonious sense of the American experience with religious liberty undermines the wisdom American history holds for developing democracies around the world.

Disspelling the Myth of Uninterrupted Triumph and Goodness

. . . Waldman reminds us that the genius of the U.S. founders was not in getting everything right from the outset, but in learning from their mistakes, with an eye out for the missteps of their own time. The first 150 years of colonial history, as he retraces it, involved a cascade of failed experiments with official state religions. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both became champions of the separation of religion and state — albeit with very different emphases — in part through their revulsion at the intolerance and violence that marked these experiments. . . .

[Waldman] dwells with some insistence — for our collective edification — on the dark side of this early history. . . . The facts, as he tells them, are shocking. At the same time, he finds a way to forgive our confusion, and our gloss on history. We come by them honestly — as a direct inheritance from the founders themselves, who were equally confused, and imprecise, and muddied by the politics of their moment in time.

. . . . A self-righteous sense of U.S. history as an unbroken arc of triumph and goodness does not serve us well as citizens and leaders in the 21st-century world. More positively stated: an active, self-aware memory of the difficulty and struggle, the violence and mistakes, that accompanied the birth of American democracy — and that only gradually and fitfully led to the virtue we now prize of separation of church and state — could be a great gift and resource in helping young democracies around the world. Our own history seen in the light of fact, and removed from the distorting divides of our time, could be a source of our greatest wisdom and reason precisely towards what is difficult and dangerous in the contemporary world.

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