Thursday, July 24, 2008

Founding Faith

Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Steven Waldman
Random House
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6437-3

Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation or did the founders intend to erect a strict barrier between church and state? Steven Waldman explores this question by examining the lives, work and writings of five of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Not surprisingly, Waldman discovers that the founding fathers disagreed with each other on the subject.

The chapters on Madison are the most enlightening. Madison was deeply involved in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, was the author of much of the Federalist Papers and, again was one of the authors of the bill of rights, including the first amendment and it's prohibition of the establishment of religion by Congress. His own view was that state support of religion weakened the church. Making the church lazy and dependent and making the people contemptuous of it. Madison felt that separating church and state made both stronger.

Madison built an alliance between enlightenment intellectuals and evangelical Christians to gain votes to ratify the Constitution in Virginia. He promised those evangelicals a bill of rights which wold guarantee them freedom to worship as they pleased, in order to get their votes. It's almost as if James Dobson and Diane Rhem were to join in common cause to guarantee their Constitutional rights.

Evangelicals, at that time were worried that state support would go the the Episcopal Church and/or the Congregational Church, the two dominant denominations at the time. Such support did exist in most of the colonies and many of the new states. In Virginia, until the passage of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, the Church of England was supported by taxes, and until 1833 the Congregational Church was state supported in Massachusetts. It was not until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868 that the provisions of the Bill of Rights applied to the states and not just the national government, thus making state support unconstitutional.

All of the founders studied in Waldman's book used conventional, nondenominational Christian language in letters and, four of them, officially as President of the United States. All of them had evolving sets of religious beliefs, none of which were particularly conventional. Jefferson and Adams became more and more Unitarian in their outlook. In fact the Congregational Church which Adams belonged to all his life, became officially Unitarian during his lifetime. Washington was a conventional Episcopalian in outward appearance but didn't attend very often. He believed that religion was needed in order to promote god behavior in the citizenry and appeared to be more concerned with outward appearance than inward salvation. Franklin postulated a supreme creator who delegated each solar system to an attentive subordinate gods. Franklin would fit right in in California. Madison mostly kept quiet about his personal faith but was comfortable with Baptists, Unitarians and Jews as well as the Episcopalians and Congregationalists who dominated the scene at the time. He wanted them all to be independent and self supporting. He even got along with the Catholics, who were almost universally hated in eighteenth century America.

The term "Wall of separation between church and state" was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a Baptist coalition in Connecticut, who wanted Jefferson's help in ending the state funding of Congregationalism there. The letter was meant to reassure them of Jefferson's support for their cause. How deliciously ironic that the descendants of those Baptists now deny the existence of such a wall.


  1. I believe in separation of church and state and it is good to see a book which talks about this in early American history.

  2. It's interesting to read how close we came to not having it.


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