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 beliefnet.com, 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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