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