May 9, 2008


Founding Faith: a review of Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America By Stephen Waldman (David Forsmark, 5/12/08,

In a lengthy article in The Nation in February 2005, Brooke Allen trotted out the Deist argument, proclaiming "the Founding Fathers were not religious men," in order to argue that would make them likely to ban Christianity from the halls of government. Facile anti-religion know-it-alls like Bill Mahr trumpet this as Gospel.

While he later proves this to be untrue, Waldman argues that the personal faith-- or lack thereof-- of each Founder may be an interesting to study, but it's beside the point.

"…(I)n the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, both sides distort history. Each has embraced a variant of the same non-sequitor. 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 that one was anti-Christian. 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. Freedom of conscience, as the Founders liked to call it, is one of the most important characteristics of American democracy, and yet the real story of how it happened is rarely told."

And Waldman does tell that story. His opening anecdote shows American-style religious freedom owes its success to a political alliance between Jefferson, the most secular politician of his time, and the era's most fundamentalist pastors, Baptists inspired by the evangelical revival known as the Great Awakening.

Another remarkable relationship was that between George Whitfield, the primary Great Awakening evangelist, and Franklin, another Founder often tagged with the Deist label. Whitfield's sermons, Waldman contends, prepared the way for revolution as he preached that free men had the God-given "insight, and right, to connect directly and interpret God's will… his first target was the Miter, the Scepter was not far behind."

Whitfield was as "media savvy as any televangelist," and Franklin, the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, gave him front page coverage and serialized his sermons. A cynic might argue that Franklin merely found Whitfield provided good copy or recognized the political advantage in freeing colonists from the yoke of the Church of England. Franklin, however, later wrote about the civic usefulness of religion chosen freely and argued that America's success would depend on God's favor —e ven if Franklin had grave reservations about the divinity of Christ.

Waldman contends that the American Revolution probably would not have happened had countless evangelical pastors not given their parishioners permission to rebel against tyranny — which, in their mind was as much represented by the Church of England as by colonial governors or British generals. The rhetoric was so ubiquitous that a Hessian mercenary in a letter home called the Revolution, 'the parson's rebellion."

Try to find that in your kid's history text.

Waldman argues that the persecution of Baptist preachers in Virginia in the 1760s and '70s was highly influential in forming Madison's strong opinions against the church having any support from the state. Ultimately, the same denomination formed an alliance with Jefferson (against whom pro-Adams election rhetoric framed the choice as between Jefferson and God) to separate the institutions in ways unprecedented at the time.

That's right: Separatimg church and state was a fundamentalist Baptist thing.

Anyone who really wants to understand the constitutional arguments about church and state should read Waldman's excellent account of the debate over the First Amendment. It deals a blow to both those who say that the idea of the separation of church and state is purely a "20th Century invention," and to those who argue aggressive secularization is what the amendment requires.

Both arguments become untenable in the face of the fact that a versions stating advocating everything from merely stating that the government was merely prohibited from favoring one denomination over another, to Congress being prohibited from even "touching" the subject of religion were offered and voted down. Interestingly, the arguments over what the ultimate compromise really meant, began as soon as it was ratified.

Even though he (rightly) considers it beside the point, Waldman takes the time to explode the Deist Founders myth. Even Franklin and Jefferson who toyed with the faddish label -- though neither could be described as any kind of orthodox Christian -- both wrote extensively of a God who was active in the affairs of men, and believed that the success of their republic depended on his favor. That's the direct opposite of Deism, which believes God created the world and left it to its own fate.

The funniest thing about the Deist argument is that if those who insist that the Founding was Deist are correct they have demonstrated that America is a Judeo-Christian Republic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2008 7:45 AM
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