Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Note: Founding Faith

Knowing my interests in history and church-state issues, a friend of mine recommend a book to me recently. I will share some thoughts about the book, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty, in this post.

The author, Steven Waldman, a co-founder of Belief.Net, took a fairly evenhanded approach in his examination of
  • the role of religion in the lives of several American Founding Fathers (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison),
  • the role of religion in the American Revolution and the formation of the USA, and
  • the role of politics in shaping the USA's fundamental legal documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Waldman's evidence led him to conclude:
  • The five men underwent religious transformations throughout their lives. They didn't receive their youthful catechisms and tuck them away to be drawn upon as needed for future reference; they questioned religious precepts all of their lives and, in some cases, ended at positions strikingly different from those they'd held as young men.
  • All five of them felt that some religion was necessary to protect the common folks from moral corruption and equip them to be good citizens; enlightened people could handle the truth about religious fables and live responsibly, but the common folks couldn't be trusted to do the same. Yes, the founding fathers were elitists (but you already knew that).
  • All of them accepted the premise that the universe was created; this is not surprising when one remembers that their lifespans pre-dated the discoveries of Darwin and later scientists.
  • None of them held beliefs that conservative Christians today would consider suitably Christian; today's Christian Right would excoriate the lot of them as heretics.
  • None of them ever intended that the USA would be a theocratic Christian Nation. They were thoroughly committed to religious pluralism, equality and complete freedom of conscience.

Waldman, reminding us that these five men did not found the country alone, provides some fascinating insights into the negotiating processes that went into shaping the nation's founding documents, particularly the First Amendment. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were hammered out - word by word - by representatives from thirteen disparate states, and then sent to those states for ratification by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Not only was it the will of most Founding Fathers that the USA be a religiously neutral, pluralistic nation, it was the will of many ordinary Americans.

Waldman also notes the importance of remembering that the founding generation could not imagine the ways in which their visions would be realized. For example, since most states did not develop public school systems until the middle and late 19th century, the founders would never have imagined wrangling over school prayer. I suggest that, rather than trying to imagine what Washington or Jefferson would think about such issues, contemporary Americans could better spend our time pondering how the Constitutional principle of pluralism, to take one example, can best be expressed in our contemporary context. The fact is, the USA is no longer the founders' country, it's ours. We need to respect the founders and be grateful for what they gave us, but it's now up to us to use the tools in our hands. Fortunately, for us, the founders gave us good ones, so let's use them wisely.

Near the end of the book, Waldman discusses what he sees as fallacies that contemporary Americans commit when discussing church-state issues. These are:

Conservative Fallacy 1: Most Founding Fathers were serious Christians
Conservative Fallacy 2: Separation of church and state is a 20th century invention of the courts
Conservative Fallacy 3: Advocates of separation are anti-religious

Liberal Fallacy 1: Most founding fathers were Deists or secular
Liberal Fallacy 2: The Constitution demanded strict separation of church and state throughout the land
Liberal Fallacy 3: Separation of church and state was designed mostly to protect religious minorities 

Common Fallacy 4: The founders figured this all out.

In closing, I'll say that I enjoyed Waldman's book. I appreciated the care he took in delineating the theological evolutions of the five founders he examined. I also enjoyed his discussion of the political contexts of the revolution and formation of a new nation based on what were, at the time, radical beliefs and principles. His bias toward religious belief is evident at times, such as when he frames the thinking of the founders as "spiritual journeys," but this doesn't prevent him from reaching the right conclusion regarding the Christian Nation verbiage that today's religious right keeps hurling at our heads: it's bunk (my paraphrase). I can't help wondering, though, if his religious bias led him to downplay the influences of Deism and Enlightenment philosophy on the founders. His discussions of the religious and political contexts of the founders were thorough, but he did not discuss Enlightenment philosophy at all. While I'll concede that secularists may be prone to over-emphasizing the philosophical trends of that era and downplaying the theology, that shortcoming is not best countered by emphasizing the theological contexts at the expense of the philosophy. The theological and philosophical contexts both need to be examined critically and thoroughly if we are to have any hope of understanding the ideas and ideals that motivated America's founders. Notwithstanding this weakness, if you're interested in reading about the religious and political contexts of the American Revolution and early republic, you'll probably enjoy this book.