The founding fathers and their faith

Last week I finished reading Founding Faith, by Steven Waldman. The book explores the history of religion in America, focusing on what the founding fathers believed personally and expressed in their role in government. It was an excellent read and balanced in coverage – the author frequently explains how both modern liberals and conservatives get the history wrong.

Here’s some of what I learned:

  • When someone says “the founding fathers believed X” they’re probably wrong. Each founder had different views – they were rarely unanimous.  They had bitter rivalries (Adams/Jefferson), different opinions on the constitution, the war, states rights, you name it.  And more confounding, their opinions, like yours and mine, changed over time (Adams became less religious as he aged, Franklin possibly more).
  • Americans wanted freedom from the British church.  The Puritans, and others that followed, wanted freedom to practice their own version of Christianity, but were not allowed to under British law. One (but not all of the) motivation for the first amendment was to prevent the U.S. government from establishing a state religion, having seen what it did in Britain. Religious freedom, specifically from the British Church, was a contributing cause for the Revolutionary war. It was one major reason people came to America, and one reason they resisted British rule.
  • Many of the issues the founders cared about were immediate. We often say “what the founders intended” but they had little conception of some of the issue we face today. They struggled just to make the constitution, the revolutionary war and the bill of rights succeed at all, in their present time, given the complex politics of a new nation. They hoped to put a system in place that would interpret the law and explore its many corners and applications, which is what the Senate and the Supreme Court have done, and hopefully will continue to do. The first or any amendment wasn’t fully understood or defined until it was tested and explored in the years after its ratification.
  • George Washington was motivated for religious tolerance to fight the war. He may have had philosophical motivations, but practically speaking he needed soldiers. If he discriminated based on religious factions, he’d had fewer soldiers and he needed every last one. He defended Catholics and other groups for these reasons – the only hope for winning the war hinged on cross-denominational support, which demanded cross-denominational tolerance.
  • Jefferson was the least religious of the founders. He questioned the divinity of Chirst, yet  found Christ’s message and teachings essential and brilliant (he worked on a version of the gospels stripped of its miracles). Adams was probably the most religious, often quoting scripture or including references to divine support in his acts.
  • The founding fathers beliefs were tempered by politics of the day. The book documents the debates among the continental congress (and, I believe, the senate) that surrounded the founders. Trades were made, positions were taken and then pulled back, in the same messy, ugly way it happens to day. We forget how many other people besides the founders were involved in every piece of legislation.

I read the book in just a few days (motivated by the religious issues in NYC). Oddly enough, the book had little impact on my opinions. But it did ground them better in the history of religion and politics in America.

I strongly recommend the book – not just for religious history, but for general understanding of the workings of the U.S. Government during such a pivotal time. I suspect there are other interpretations of the facts other than his, but simply for better framing the process and key decisions, it’s a worthy read.

Here’s the link to amazon: Founding Faith, by Steven Waldman

12 Responses to “The founding fathers and their faith”

  1. Rich S

    Thanks for passing along the book recommendation. Keep them coming!

  2. SDiMeglio

    Your first bullet addresses something that has bothered me for a long time. This idea that is often found on the editorial pages that all the founding fathers were all of a common set of beliefs regarding government, the law and religion. It simply was not true. There were the same debates and divisions then between the Federalists led primarily by Hamilton and the Anti-Federalists led by Jefferson that we see today between the political parties and liberals vs. conservatives. This idea of interpreting the constitution according to the original intent is nutty to me precisely because the intents of the founders were quite different.

  3. Scott Berkun

    SDiMeglio: Yes. And it’s even more complex than that. In some cases they all did agree, at least on the process they used to arrive at decisions (they accepted decisions even though they didn’t always agree).

    In other cases they were more hostile, especially if it involved people who had previous disagreements or issues.

    There are cases were blanket statements make sense, but it requires some investigation into the specific issue to see what the history was, what the original positions of each person was, and what their final position was (often compromises were willingly agreed to as the best solution).

  4. Glen

    I never thought they had the same views and the last bullet point makes perfect sense. I think we can all agree they wanted more freedom. They seemed to weigh laws back then over how much freedom it removed. Then again i’m probably wrong. After all, i’m not a historian. I just wish they factored in freedom in to today’s laws. Good find.

  5. Joe McCarthy

    Thanks for the review.

    Given that the Republican Party was not founded until 1854, I imagine the book doesn’t have anything to say about whether God is, in fact, a Republican (as might be inferred by some of the rhetoric on the right these days).

    I wonder how many of the people attending Glenn Beck’s non-political rally at the Lincoln Memorial have (or will) read the book … or if Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin have read it.

  6. Scott Berkun


    From poking around about the author he is likely more liberal than conservative, but he did manage to get some endorsements from conservatives, or moderates, for the book.

    I suspect there are other interpretations of the same documents and records he reviews, but that much of his interpretation is reasonable.

    Madison’s anti-religious stance is apparently a matter of debate (in terms of how far he went or wanted to go) and this book takes a more liberal (e.g. stronger separation of church/state) interpretation of his views apparently than others have.

  7. Dick

    Scott– thanks much for the review. Bought it last week and “thanks” to a coast-to-coast trip, I’ve about finished it. This is a terrific, compact and thoughtful volume. I’ll second Scott’s recommendation, if you’re an American you need to read this book! Not later, now.

    Under other circumstances I’d post a review of this but I think a comment and link here will do even more to spread the word.

    Oh, yeah, I also recommended it to my British son-in-law because I think the story on that side of the pond is at least as distorted as it is here.

  8. OFT

    When someone says “the founding fathers believed X” they’re probably wrong. Each founder had different views – they were rarely unanimous.>

    This is where Waldman is wrong. Which is sad, because he is influential, spreading revisionism to the people. There was one thing, the most important thing the Founders agreed upon; was Christianity. That the Bible was the foundation of
    of our Republic. Waldman’s book is a failure, for the fact he missed the the foundation of our nation:

    “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”

    -Washington’s Farewell to the Army, June 8th, 1783.

    Jefferson, who wasn’t a real Christian, nonetheless, wrote Christ was the foundation, and that Christianity was our religion:

    “Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion . . . .”

    -A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Section I.



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