Review: Founding Faith

Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America is exactly the kind of writing I like to see on difficult matters of history.  The topic is charged because of the constant battle between Church and State and the politicizing of faith on both sides, but there are real lessons to learn from history.  Waldman leads the reader toward those lessons by looking at several key founders and examining both their personal faith and their contemporaneous opinions about how religion and the republic should interact.  He also provides the context for these decisions in terms of the religious and political forces of the times.

Though Waldman uses a few well known founders to motivate his discussions, he never forgets that these were extraordinary men who created popular political consensus.  Madison may have believed in a wall between Church and State, but he never lost sight of the fact that other positions had to be considered and ground conceded.  Appeals to Jefferson’s position on an issue should not ignore the fact that all of the founding documents and many actions on which we base that position were products of consensus.  The frustrating ambiguity of the First Amendment exists partially so that different constituencies can see what they want to in it and support it.

Despite that caveat, this is not a wishy-washy book.  Waldman calls the history as he sees it, whether he’s providing supporting evidence that Jefferson meant what he said about a wall between Church and State or arguing that none of his selected founders were Deists or Atheists.  Partisans on either side of modern Church and State debates will find some of their historical support kicked out from under them.

This is as it should be.  Waldman’s interested in a real understanding of the issues – religious and political – in the early years of the nation.  There are important differences in how religion was practiced that shape the founders’ views that imply those views require context, but not so much context that appeals to God are anything but what they seem.  Furthermore the founders do not speak with one voice.  Adams and Madison have very different views of the role of religion in moral and public life.  Beyond that their personal faith and their positions on how the government should deal with religions differ as well.

Overall this does a great job of getting the historical issues in place and showing how both the most respected minds of the era addressed them as well as how the country as a whole approached things.  I came away with a much better understanding of the period, the pressures, and how the decisions of the time were influenced.  Waldman does not pick a particularly strident position on any side and try to defend it.  These are some facts that will help the reader form their opinions, not positions to adopt or refute.


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