Founding Faith Myths

Mike Clawson here again. I honestly hesitate to post this. Who knows what nefarious ulterior motives will be imputed to me because of it. ;) Nonetheless, I though some of you might be interested in this.

Jon Meacham in Newsweek just had an interesting review of a new book by Steven Waldman (editor-in-chief of Beliefnet), Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. While the review highlights the books emphasis on lesser known Founding Father James Madison, the book as a whole aims to clarify some of the more persistent myths about the relation of church and state in the early days of our nation and how the Founding Fathers tended to think about it.

From the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on Amazon:

Various American evangelicals have claimed the founding fathers as believing and practicing Protestants who intended America to be a Christian nation. Secularists, on the other hand, see in the same historical record evidence that the founders were often Deists at best. Both views are grossly oversimplified, argues Waldman, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com. In this engaging, well-researched study, Waldman focuses on the five founding fathers who had the most influence on religion’s role in the state—Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Madison—and untangles their complex legacy. They were certainly diverse in religiosity, with Jefferson a self-diagnosed heretic, for instance, and Washington a churchgoing Anglican who was silent on points of doctrine and refrained from taking communion. All, however, were committed to the creation of religious freedom in the new nation.

In the article Meacham also highlighted several of the myths that Waldman corrects. Such as:

The Founding Fathers wanted religious freedom because they were devout Christians. Most of them disliked much about organized Christianity, the clerical class, and its theology, especially the common Calvinist doctrine that salvation came only from expressed faith in Jesus—or from being among God’s elect—rather than through good works.” And: “Evangelical Christians invariably want more government support for religion and less separation of church and state. In fact, separation of church and state would not exist if not for the efforts of eighteenth-century evangelicals.” And: “The First Amendment was designed to separate church and state throughout the land. Actually, the Founders only intended it to apply to the federal government, not the local governments that regulate schools, local courthouses and town squares.”

Sounds like one I’ll need to add to my reading list. It’s always good to replace culture wars rhetoric with actual history.

  • Edwin

    Sounds interesting. It would be good to see a rational approach to this issue, as I agree both sides have overstated their case. Whether or not the founding fathers intended states to have the option of establishing religion, however, I don’t think it would be wise for us to go down that road now.

  • Pither

    Waldman was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88096495

  • http://limadean.wordpress.com Nadine

    Sounds pretty interesting!
    I didn’t know James Madison was lesser-known, though.

    They were certainly diverse in religiosity…

    I think that’s something a lot of people don’t want to deal with. They were individual men with different ideas and beliefs. People want to invoke “the founding fathers” like they invoke the Trinity. :)

  • Cade

    The founding fathers could barely agree on the constitution, and we expect them to agree on religion? ;)

    It seems like an interesting book to me, but I think that it’s a little misguided to invoke the framers’ opinion into the discussion at all. We need to follow their reasoning more than their conclusions. After all, the Constitution was built on compromise, it wasn’t “intelligently designed”. :)

  • http://groundedinreality.blogspot.com Bruce

    In fact, separation of church and state would not exist if not for the efforts of eighteenth-century evangelicals.

    And what century is it now??? I understand that a lot of evangelicals back then were at the forefront of the separation movement. But is seems like most of the prominent ones today want to get god back into the government and schools.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I understand that a lot of evangelicals back then were at the forefront of the separation movement.

    Not just the forefront, they invented it. Separation of Church and State is a core Anabaptist and Baptist principle. Thomas Jefferson actually got the phrase from a couple of Baptist ministers (Leland & Backus).

    But yes, too many evangelicals have forgotten their roots these days, though some are trying to get back to them. For instance the Institute of Church State Studies at Baylor University, a moderate Baptist school, strongly supports separation.

  • Vincent

    As to extending to state and local governments, the founders were working with a concept of a much more limited federal government.
    It was not until after the 14th amendment that the constitution applied to all the states and smaller governmental bodies.
    Whether or not they would have wanted it to is unknowable as far as I am aware. It just never came up.

    Nevertheless, it DOES apply to all state and local governments, so whether or not the founders wanted it to is moot.

  • Siamang

    Nevertheless, it DOES apply to all state and local governments, so whether or not the founders wanted it to is moot.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure the founders were against women voting… so times change, y’know.

  • http://keenabean.blogspot.com Kaleena

    Pither, I was gonna share the link to npr, but you beat me to it!

    It really was an interesting interview though…

  • Renacier

    Honestly, I think that what the framers of the Constitution thought about anything is moot at this point. Yes, the founding fathers were very smart and forward thinking men, but that was centuries ago. Their ideas should be used as a starting point, not the gold standard. The world we live in would be inconceivable to them and I’m uncomfortable with the idea of measuring everything we do now by the standards of “what the Founding Fathers wanted”

    Imagine if Hemingway or Atwood sat down to write a book and said “Now wait a minute. Is this what Charles Dickens would have wanted?” Of if Chief Justice Earl Warren said “Hold it. What would Judge Stoughton do?”

    There’s a problem if our best political and social ideals are over two hundred years old

  • http://limadean.wordpress.com Nadine

    Renacier said,
    There’s a problem if our best political and social ideals are over two hundred years old.

    I agree. I’m listening to the interview on NPR and he makes a point of saying that Jefferson believed in intelligent design (in response to secular people looking to Jefferson as their representative in the group). That’s shocking news about someone who was alive well before Darwin!
    I wonder if Jefferson, Madison, and the others would be confused as to why we are so completely obsessed with their personal beliefs.

  • phoobaar

    LOL @ Washington being a “churchgoing Anglican.” Apparently this “study” was not as “well-researched” as its reviewer claims.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    Looks like another entry in the usual “if I declare everyone in all sides of the issue equally guilty of misrepresentation, I can sound like the calm voice of reason” school of authorship.

    Seriously: while there are plenty of newbie messageboard atheists and a couple of “why do research?” journalists running around claiming that the founders were all Deists at best, I’ve found precious few of the major SoCaS defenders making that argument: and plenty of them debunking it (though it’s really just not a question that has one single answer, since there were such a diversity of views and the men changed them over time).

    I asked Waldman directly to start naming names instead of just making sweeping “they all do it” accusations, and the best he could come up with was one questionable example (she said that Washington was surprisingly non-religious, which could be interpreted in lots of different ways based on what you find surprising) from someone I’d never heard of.

  • Peter

    I do not live my life by the intentions my mother had for me upon birth.

    I do not live in my neighborhood in the way the original land developer envisioned.

    I don’t care what the founder of my hometown thought the town would be one day.

    I live in the west, and I do not adhere to any of the futures that Lewis and Clarke predicted.

    Why should anyone care what some 18th century folk thought about what the country should be. These men are worthy of historical prestige, but nothing more. We are the Founding Fathers of today, not them.

  • http://groundedinreality.blogspot.com Bruce

    I’m going to second what everyone else has already said. The Founders were great thinkers for their time and they laid the foundations for our country, but they were also smart enough to know that things will change as time goes by and thus left us with a Constitution that can be amended and re-interpreted as needed. While it’s interesting to know what they were thinking back then and they for sure had a lot of good ideas we should not be so quick to forget, we also should not limit ourselves to what they thought back then. If something needs to be changed for the better, then so be it. That’s the beauty of it all.

  • cautious

    There’s a problem if our best political and social ideals are over two hundred years old

    Heck there’s some people who think the best ideals are, at the least, two thousand years old.

    But it is interesting to know what kind of country the founders attempted to create. Unlike some countries that have written up a new constitution in the past 200 years, the US hasn’t. So their words and ideas do still affect those of us who live here.

  • Karen

    But it is interesting to know what kind of country the founders attempted to create. Unlike some countries that have written up a new constitution in the past 200 years, the US hasn’t. So their words and ideas do still affect those of us who live here.

    That’s a good point. I think we have to balance this reality with the insanity of the “originalists” who are trying to use their version of the FFs to push an odious ideological agenda.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Mike C. Sounds like a good read.

  • Mriana

    It could very well be an interesting read. I have a long book list and several books on my bookshelf that I need to find time to read so I can catch up to my book list. :lol: Maybe I’ll get to even this one sometime in the near future.

  • Vincent

    The problem is not so much in what the founding fathers (and mothers) thought as it should be applied today, but the misrepresentation of what they thought that IS being used today.
    There is nothing wrong with arguing that historically X therefore X is a good starting point for modern thought.
    The problem is people are lying about X, the most glaring example being the opening statements of House Resolution 888, which is currently in committee and will hopefully die there.
    That bill has 70+ statements about the role of christianity in the US origins, most of which are flat lies or distortions.
    Nothing wrong with using history to make a point – just don’t lie about it to make people think the past supports your point when it doesn’t.

  • Maria

    sounds like an interesting book


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