Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: Waldman's "Founding Faith"

Just finished Steve Waldman's book Founding Faith, the first book I read all the way through on my new Kindle. (The cool thing about the Kindle is you can mark passages, and then upload what you've chosen to your computer, which means I can excerpt parts without having to type them in. It's the little things.) Waldman is editor-in-chief, president and co-founder of, and his book is an in-depth exploration of the origins of our concept of separation of church and state.

I found Founding Faith to be fascinating and eye-opening. Like most people, I tended to lump the U.S. founding fathers into one category, as though they all thought alike and wanted the same things. Not so! Like today, there were as many points of view as there were men. More on this below.

But first, I wanted to share a point that was startling to me. Initially, evangelicals strongly supported separation. This was due in part to their own early roots as a minority, and their desire to be free from persecution. However, Waldman also states:

Evangelical opposition to state aid was not driven merely by fear of persecution. Rather, evangelicals believed that Christ demanded this position. Christians were to render unto Caesar what was his—in other words, the religious and political spheres were meant, by Jesus, to be separate.

That would be news to some today!

Founding Faith digs deep into the religious backgrounds and convictions of several key founding fathers: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and—surprise!—Madison. I was unaware of Madison's role in the development of our Constitution. (Next on my list is a biography of his—any suggestions?) Each of these men had distinct ideas on the place of religion in both society and government, and they had to compromise with each other even as we have to today to get anything done. None of them got entirely what they wanted.

Here's Waldman's characterization of the founding fathers as a group:

Each felt religion was extremely important, at a minimum to encourage moral behavior and make the land safe for republican government; each took faith seriously enough to conscientiously seek out a personal path that worked for him; each rejected major aspects of his childhood religion; and none accepted the full bundle of creeds offered by his denomination. In other words, they were spiritual enough to care passionately about religious freedom, but not so dogmatic that they felt duty-bound to promote a particular faith. This combination led them to promote religious freedom rather than religion.

Toward the end of the book, Waldman hypothesizes about how each of these key men would have responded to the issue of having the Ten Commandments in a public location. As Presidents, none of them would have commented on this, since they all believed (because the Fourteenth Amendment was in the future) that states had the right to determine this independently. But then Waldman says this:

But what if they were governors of a state that was considering placing the Ten Commandment plaque? Ah, now that’s different. Each of these five men may have taken a different approach.

Governor Madison, I believe, would have opposed the idea. He would have argued that as much as he liked the Decalogue, government endorsing it would not only harm those who didn’t believe it, but tarnish the Decalogue itself. Governor Jefferson would reassert the right of the state to do this but would also declare that, in the end, it was a bad idea. Adams, or at least Adams of the 1776 mind-set, would likely have gone along with the plaque. He’d view complaints from the evangelicals as a bit picayune and suggest that as long as the court is not actually restricting the religions of others, there’s no harm in publicly declaring allegiance with biblical principles. Washington would likely have agreed with Adams’s approach but fretted that the plaque was citing material from the Bible instead of broader, more unifying principles. He might have suggested a more general statement that God wants us to follow certain universal moral laws. Franklin would have caused the most mischief by agreeing to the posting of the Ten Commandments but only if all of the other religions in the area also got representation. Under Governor Franklin, the courthouse would have become a museum to all religious traditions—passages from the Quran and Bhagavad Gita side by side with the Ten Commandments.

Which just confirms Franklin's position as my favorite founding father.

If you're interested in the church/state issue and want to be better informed than the usual black/white rhetoric about it, I highly recommend this book. If you're like me, it will challenge both your own notions about religion and whatever concept you may have had about the early decision makers.

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or submit a question.
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At 1/17/2009 09:44:00 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

At 2/14/2009 07:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Some opening thoughts,…this is a vast subject and certainly deserves our thoughtful considerations. My own view is that the secularists in America have got it wrong, but those of Christian faith haven’t figured out yet how to defend themselves and the Christian heritage that stands as the foundation of American principles. My conviction is:

That the 10 Commandments represent the principles upon which America’s Constitution is based. What other religion teaches the same principles or expounds the precepts of individual freedom that are basic to the teachings of Christianity? The Hebrew and Christian religions are based on the concept that there is one God and that man is made in the image and likeness of God. This fundamental principle underlies our Constitution and is the basis of those freedoms embraced and espoused by the Constitution as exemplified in the United States of America. When referencing Christianity I am not intending any particular church or orthodoxy, but rather principles that are inherent in Christian teachings and informed by the 10 Commandments.

No other nation on earth has ever developed a government based upon the precepts articulated in the Declaration of Independence and set forth in the Constitution. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” (Capitalization is taken from the original text.)

Name one other religion that teaches such principles of liberty, self-government and government deriving its powers from the consent of the governed. Why is it that people from every race, religion, and nationality flock to America in order to experience a freedom that exists no where else in the world? What sets America apart from the nations ruled by Islam, by the followers of Bhudda, Confucius, Hinduism, or any other religious belief? It is that America is a Christian nation, and its laws are based on principles defined by the 10 Commandments, a nation historically willing to acknowledge the influence of Providence in its formation and construction. Others argue that the 10 Commandments are not unique, that other religions teach essentially the same principles; but if so, then why has no other nation declared itself to be a nation “under God,” and set forth such principles of freedom and liberty as have been now preserved for over two hundred years in America alone, while most of the rest of the world is subject to dictatorships, tyrannies, royalties, and other forms of government over, not by, their people?

As recently as 1952, in Zorach v. Clauson, Justice William O. Douglas (liberal as his reputation holds him), declared: “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

John Adams, our second president, who had participated in the process of founding this nation “under God,” wrote that “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion….Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

The basis of our laws in protecting from crime and immorality are fully based upon the 10 Commandments, and it is easy to see in contemporary America that as those Commandments are renounced and denounced by those elements alien to and determined against religion in general and Christianity in particular, that America is experiencing the unbridled passions of secular beliefs and interests.

John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams and the sixth president of the United States offered this assessment of the relationship of Christianity to our Constitution. He said, “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

In your book review of Waldman’s Founding Faith, you confirm that Benjamin Franklin is your favorite founding father. It was Franklin who brought prayer into the discussion and writing of the Constitution. When it seemed likely that frayed tempers and heated disagreements might bring the discussion to an impasse, Franklin gave a memorable talk in which he implored the delegates on the importance of their turning to prayer. Some excerpts of that talk:

“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.’”

“I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate at this service.”

Had the ACLU been around in Franklin’s day, they would have declared his request unconstitutional before there was a constitution, and thrown him our with the bath water. That they are attempting to do so today doesn’t change the significance of the secular rejection of religion, in spite of our Founding Fathers’ great faith in Providence to
establish this nation. If such faith was providential in establishing the nation, why should anyone believe that same faith can be expelled today and the nation still remain intact?

I haven’t read Waldman’s book, but have read and studied many others pertaining to religion and prayer and the Constitution. I would point out, regarding the fallacious concept of separation of church and state, that it is to be found nowhere in the
Constitution, and those who subscribe to it rely heavily upon an 1802 letter by Thomas
Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in which he said that government must keep its hands off religion. In this letter Jefferson used the term “wall of separation,” but apparently not in any political sense.

An American University professor, Daniel Dreisbach, has researched Jefferson’s use of the term, and offers this assessment of its use by the Supreme Court. “The ‘high and impregnable wall’ constructed by the modern Supreme Court inhibits religion’s ability to
inform the public ethic, deprives religious citizens of the civil liberty to participate in
politics armed with ideas informed by their spiritual values, and infringes the right of
religious communities and institutions to extend their ministries into the public square.
The wall has been used to silence the religious voice in the public marketplace of ideas and to segregate people of faith behind a restrictive barrier.”

It was not until 1947, in Everson v. Board of Education, that the Supreme Court issued its finding of a nonexistent “wall of separation” between church and state. The Court had no precedent for that ruling, but used the Everson case to declare its rejection of religious principles from the public square. Until then, the Supreme Court had consistently upheld and affirmed the Christian nature of America and the pertinence of religion in preserving the moral fiber of the nation.

Since you are a Christian Scientist, I will close these introductory remarks with two
quotations from Mary Baker Eddy.

“The Constitution of the United States does not provide that materia medica shall make laws to regulate man's religion; rather does it imply that religion shall permeate our laws. Mankind will be God-governed in proportion as God's government becomes apparent, the Golden Rule utilized, and the rights of man and the liberty of conscience held sacred. Meanwhile, they who name the name of Christian Science will assist in the holding of crime in check, will aid the ejection of error, will maintain law and order, and will cheerfully await the end — justice and judgment.” (My. 222:22).

“Like our nation, Christian Science has its Declaration of Independence. God has endowed man with inalienable rights, among which are self-government, reason, and conscience. Man is properly self-governed ONLY when he is guided rightly and governed by his Maker, divine Truth and Love (emphasis added).
“Man's rights are invaded when the divine order is interfered with, and the mental trespasser incurs the divine penalty due this crime.” (Science and Health, 106:6-14).

There is sufficient evidence in American society today that the secularists are determined
to see to it that religion does not permeate our laws, and that government shall rule the
people, not the people determine the scope and limitations of government, as required by
the Constitution. Secularism turns the Constitution upside down, and we are all losers because of it.

At 3/08/2009 11:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found the above comment to be well thought out. Thanks for taking the time to share what you see. Gary


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