Michael Dirda

(Jefferson Memorial/Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 9, 2008


Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America

By Steven Waldman

Random House. 277 pp. $26

Founding Faith takes up two central questions about religion in early America. First, what did such Founding Fathers as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison usually believe? And second, how did it come about that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"? The answers to these questions carry implications for our lives today, since at stake is the flash-point principle of the separation of church and state.

In his opening chapters, Steven Waldman discusses the major faiths of early America -- Puritans, Baptists, Catholics and Quakers -- as each strives to consolidate its political ascendancy in, respectively, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Each also reveals its own particular fanaticisms, though the Salem witch trials gave New England's Puritans a lasting legacy of shame. Yet the Protestant hatred of Catholicism was even more widespread and virulent than the fear of sorcery. Not only was the Vatican theologically likened to the Whore of Babylon, it was also seen as a political danger. When King George III allowed Quebec to remain Catholic, many in the colonies believed this would eventually prompt an invasion by crusading Quebecois papists. Such fears and bigotry fed the fires of anti-English feeling.

Religious fervor pervaded early American life, and church leaders, even more than today, wielded considerable political clout. Yet none of our history-book heroes of the Revolution could be viewed as anything but heterodox in his creed.

Franklin, we learn, believed that God created the universe, then gave over its governing to various minor gods. (Waldman describes this as a form of deism, though it strikes me as vaguely Gnostic.) John Adams's "disdain for Calvinists was surpassed only by his contempt for Catholics," and he appears to have been equally disgusted with many facets of orthodox Christian theology. For instance, he refused to accept that one bite from an apple "damned the whole human Race, without any actual Crimes committed by any of them." Eventually, Adams joined a liberal Unitarian church, which emphasized Christ's teachings rather than his divinity.

George Washington was raised as an Anglican but seldom went to Sunday service, refused to kneel and never took communion. In many ways, he was more active as a freemason than as a Christian. But he spoke up strongly for religious tolerance, even during the Revolution: "While we are contending for our liberty," he wrote, "we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable." Waldman describes Thomas Jefferson as a "pious infidel" and James Madison as a "radical pluralist." Jefferson viewed Jesus as a moral teacher and nothing more: He actually cut up a copy of the Gospels, removing all references to miracles and any claims that Jesus was more than human.

Madison appears to have respected religion without being seriously attached to any sect in particular. But, like his fellow Virginians, he did feel strongly the need for tolerance, and it is to him that Waldman believes we owe our freedom of conscience. He helped frame the Constitution, which mentions neither Jesus nor God, and later the First Amendment.

Madison hoped for a total prohibition against government interference with religion. He and many Baptists of the day firmly believed in keeping Caesar away from Christ. Once a church started taking money from the kings of this world, it inevitably grew soft, lax and corrupt. Alas, Madison couldn't pass the wording he wanted. Instead, "The First Amendment was a grand declaration that the federal government couldn't support or regulate religion -- but it was also a grand declaration that states absolutely could." The prohibition would be made applicable to state governments only through the passage of the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment ("No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States").

Waldman takes pains to underscore the various interpretive ambiguities of the First Amendment's religious declaration -- parsed by jurists and preachers ever since -- as well as the impossibility of ever fully determining exactly what the authors intended. (He even suggests that the language was deliberately kept a little fuzzy.) As a result, we can't look to the framers of the Bill of Rights for an indisputable answer to just how separate church and state should be. What we can do, however, is "pick up the argument that they began and do as they instructed -- use our reason to determine our views."

Much of the last third of Founding Faith discusses how our first four presidents dealt with religious issues while they were in office, then as they grew older and faced death.

Waldman was a journalist at U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek and is currently the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com, an eye-popping Web site devoted to every aspect of "inspiration, spirituality, faith." While his book draws on the work of academic historians and other scholars, Waldman hopes to appeal to the general reader through a somewhat overbright and colloquial prose style. There is much talk of today's "culture warriors" and a clear desire to be snappy: Waldman calls Franklin "a religious freedom fighter with Puritan DNA." George Washington, we are told, "declared Masonic goals fully in sync with those of the new republic." The profound theological thinker Jonathan Edwards is dubbed the Billy Graham of his day. One can admire the wish to avoid gravitas without endorsing a fall into bathos.

Happily, our Founding Fathers did establish a nation based on liberty of conscience, religious freedom and acceptance of difference. Perhaps Isaiah Berlin best enunciated what this means when he said that "decent respect for others and the toleration of dissent is better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better than the rigorous imposition of all-embracing systems, no matter how rational and disinterested."

To such liberal views, one might add those of the arch-conservative Adam Smith, who in The Theory of Moral Sentiments stressed that the glue holding society together is nothing less than the ability to sympathize and identify with other human beings. Ours is a diverse nation, of a thousand religions, and that in itself is a great good and a great safeguard. As James Madison once said, "multiplicity of sects . . . is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company