Review: Steven Waldman's "Founding Faith"


Just when I thought that there was nothing left to say about religion and the founding of the United States, Steven Waldman has come along with Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. I realize that some readers of this blog might whine and moan about another book on this subject, but if we have to deal with a new biography of Abraham Lincoln every year, then what’s wrong with another book about faith and the founding, especially when it is framed as carefully as this one.

Waldman, the co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.Com, has written a useful book. Founding Faith is not a work of original scholarship, but Waldman relies upon the very best studies in the field to craft his compelling narrative. His research in primary sources—mostly the writings of the Founding Fathers—is also impressive. The defenders of Christian America will have a hard time arguing with him or accusing him of being too reliant on secondary material.

Founding Faith is unlike any other popular trade book on religion and the founding era. It is actually quite balanced. (In terms of thesis and style, Jon Meacham’s American Gospel is its closest competitor. Meacham organizes his book around the idea of civil religion. Waldman’s focus is on religious freedom). The book presents a clear argument against the Christian America view, but Waldman has no axe to grind. In other words, his study is quite different from books with titles such as Moral Minority, The Godless Constitution, Liars for Jesus, and American Fascists. Neither is it as polemical as Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come. Founding Faith comes with ringing endorsements from Joseph Ellis, Mark Noll, Bill Bennett, Jim Wallis, Walter Isaacson, and George Stephanopoulos. This is certainly a diverse bunch!

Waldman sets the record straight on several issues that have been debated fiercely by those engaged in what he calls the “custody battle” over the American founding. Seventeenth-century America, he rightly argues, was not founded as a bastion of religious freedom, but as a place where religious establishments prevailed. Scholars will already know this, but it is still nice to see such a clean and direct hit on the Whiggish interpretations of the British colonies promoted by many of the so-called Christian America writers. Waldman also makes it clear that most of the Founders were not deists, especially if we define a “deist” as a person who rejects the idea that God acts in human history. Nearly all the Founders believed in providence. I am sure that Susan Jacoby and others and still others may have something to say about this, but Waldman is correct here.

It is now common for those on the right and the left to try to prove that America is or isn’t a Christian nation based on the religious beliefs of the Founders. Waldman reminds us of the logical problems with this argument. Just because one of the Founders was a Christian—or even an evangelical Christian—doesn’t mean that he was an opponent of the separation of church and state. The opposite is also true. Just because one of the Founders did not believe all the tenets of orthodox Christianity does not always mean that he rejected the idea that Christianity was good for the republic. This argument seems obvious, but it is often missing from the popular religious histories of the founding era.

Waldman offers some interesting historical nuggets that are definitely worth pondering. For example, was Thomas Jefferson an early proponent of “intelligent design?” Waldman thinks so. Do the conservatives have the best argument in the debate over whether or not the natural rights described in the Declaration of Independence can be traced to historic Christianity? Waldman believes they do. Did James Madison’s pessimistic view of human nature, as seen in Federalist #10 and elsewhere, stem from his Calvinist training as a student of John Witherspoon at Princeton? Perhaps, says Waldman.

The heroes in this book are Madison and the Baptists. Waldman advocates strongly for the application of Madison’s views on the separation of church and state to our contemporary religious debates. Unlike founders such as Washington, Adams, or even Franklin, Madison believed that religion and government should never mix. He proposed a wall between separation of church and state (though he did not use the term “wall”) well before the passing of the First Amendment, the writing of Thomas Jefferson’s 1809 letter to the Danbury Baptists, and the twentieth-century affirmations of the Supreme Court on the subject. For Madison, when government stays out of religion, religion thrives. Waldman agrees.

Baptists helped Madison shape his views on church and state. The persecution of these evangelicals in Virginia prompted him to write his now famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785). Baptists also lobbied heavily (against the Episcopalian evangelical Patrick Henry, who favored a form of establishment) for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, (1786). They were also a major force behind Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800. (The practice of courting the evangelical vote has a long history!). For Waldman, the irony in all of this is that religious descendants of these eighteenth-century evangelical Baptists are now, in the twenty-first century, leading the charge to challenge this view of the separation of church and state.

There is not a whole lot to quibble with in Founding Faith. Waldman does embrace the argument that the Great Awakening—with its rebellion against clerical authority and democratic ideals—set the American Revolution in motion. As many of our readers already know, some historians have questioned whether there is any relationship between the Awakening and the Revolution (myself included). Moreover, those who favor a greater place for religion in the public square will have problems with Waldman’s conclusion that Madison is the best model for dealing with our present-day controversies over the relationship between church and state.

Finally, I wonder if this book will get into the right hands. Some on the Christian Right will read it, and may even appreciate it, but few will be converted to Waldman's view of American history. If he is correct these defenders of Christian America will need to close shop. And don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Founding Faith will make the members of the ACLU and other supporters of complete separation a bit uncomfortable because Waldman is not afraid to say that some of the Christian Right’s historical analysis may be correct. But in the end, liberals will breathe a sigh of relief after reading his strong defense of Madison.

If there was ever a book that might convince some readers—on both the left and the right-- to rethink or tweak their views on religion and the founding, Founding Faith may be it. This is now the best popular book on the subject. It will make a big and well-deserved splash when it is released next week.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the review. Sounds like a worthwhile read.
Sherry said…
My concern over fundamentalism has lead to a renewed interest in this subject as well. Thanks for a great post. I'm alerting my readers and inviting them to stop and read your post. Picked up your feed as well. !
Gary Kowalski said…
As the author of "Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America's Founding Fathers" (BlueBridge 2008), I have to take exception to Steve Waldman's characterization of Jefferson as a proponent of "intelligent design." Jefferson and Madison alike were intrigued by the discovery of deep time in the eighteenth century. They puzzled over the presence of marine fossils close by in the Blue Ridge and miles above sea level in the Andes. How did the impressions of marine organisms make their way to mountaintops?

Neither Jefferson nor Madison was entirely sure of the answer--though Jefferson dismissed the notion that Noah's flood might have been responsible, considering the incredible volume of water needed to cover the mountain summits to a depth of 15,000 feet (the highest elevation where such fossils had been found) and the impossibility of disposing of such an inundation through evaporation.

Both Jefferson and Madison pondered the French naturalists Buffon's theories that the earth might be tens of thousands or even millions of years old, and that life might have originated in the warmth of antedeluvian seas without any recourse to divine intervention. Both believed such theories needed to evaluated through experiment, objective evidence and the careful collection of data, not by recourse to revelation or church authority. They were completely empirical in their approach to such questions. Surely today they would evaluate the arguments for "intelligent design" on the same hard-headed, objective basis. And like almost all modern scientists, they would have to reject ID as a theory grounded in theology rather than in biological fact.
"Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America's Founding Fathers" is available from Amazon and all major bookstores.

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