Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America"

Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New York: Random House, 2008).

Waldman's book is a balanced, thoughtful, and well-written discussion of the "founding fathers" of the U.S. Constitution and how their diverse and fascinating views on religious freedom have often been skewed by one side or another in the culture wars. Founding Faith alternates chapters between a clear, concise story of the evolution of religious freedom in colonial America with descriptions of the spiritual journeys and beliefs of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. Waldman argues convincingly that the founding fathers were not atheists or deists; they believed in a God, believed that God often interceded in worldly affairs, and believed that religion could be a force for good. On the other hand, Waldman makes it clear that the founding fathers were far from orthodox Christians, were often accused of being irreligious, and were quite cognizant of the dangers of government and religion becoming intertwined.

Waldman shows how easy it can be to take a quote out of context here or there to prove almost anything about their beliefs, but a careful, nuanced view often complicates the talking points used by separationists and accomodationists. Further, as Waldman notes, "In the eighteenth century, it did not follow that one's piety determined one's views about separation of church and state. Being pro-religion didn't mean one was anti-separation. And being pro-separation didn't mean one was anti-God. In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty." (p. x)

Perhaps most importantly, Waldman shows how the "original intent" of the framers is both difficult to discern and of questionable value in resolving modern problems. "It's time we stopped using the Founders as historical conversation stoppers--as in I'm right and you can tell, because the Founding Fathers agree with me. Instead, we must pick up the argument that they began and do as they instructed--use our reason to determine our views." (p. 196)

An impressive book, one definitely worth picking up for anyone interested in the history of religious freedom in the United States.

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