Winter 2008 - Volume 11 Number 1
|Reviews||Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
New York: Random House, 2008
In the interest of full disclosure, I find myself located firmly on one side of the so-called “culture wars” that seem largely to define political discourse in the United States today. For lack of a better term, I suppose I am what many Americans would call a “secular humanist” (though my faith in humanity is sometimes less than firm). I am, however, certainly not among those who think that human society is best served when transcendent and ineluctably authoritarian religious “values” are allowed to trump mundane, democratic political policies. In fact, I remain distressed that the opening sentence of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms insists that “Canada is founded on principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” It takes a casuistic stretch worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas to reconcile those two sources of authority. My preference especially in this era of an alleged “clash of civilizations” would be to encourage God to retire to the wings and let political theatre take centre stage and proceed undirected, unencumbered and unimpeded by divine will.
That said, I cannot ignore the fact that large numbers of people from Baghdad to Baltimore and from Mecca to Minneapolis take their religions very seriously, and are often keen to impose their version of holy writ upon heathens, infidels and non-believers of all sorts. We are all familiar with sectarian strife half-way around the world, and some of us are fearful that it may once again break through permeable national barriers to inflict horrific damage on trains and subways, tall buildings or symbols of cultural heritage in North America, Europe and almost anywhere else in the world. What may be of more practical importance in North America, however, are the occasional squabbles over religious symbolism in our own societies.
In the United States, the troubles associated with an unsteady economy and a decidedly unsuccessful foreign policy have prompted a good deal of “soul-searching” in recent years. There has rarely been a time when bookstores have been crammed with as many “insider” memoirs about what’s wrong with Washington today as well as historical reassessments of the Civil War and biographies of the founders of the republic. Eager to seek answers to perennial problems or, at least, to take refuge in contemporary polemics, Americans and others are invited to focus on enduring dilemmas in the republic.
Among the most important of such issues is the question of whether the United States was founded as a “Christian” nation.
On the religious right, “fundamentalists” and a large number of “evangelicals” insist that Christianity is essential to the nature and character of America. Among the more tawdry advocates of this position are people such as Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins and the late Jerry Falwell whose theo-political views range from excitedly anticipating Armageddon to overt racism and sexism, to blaming Hurricane Katrina on homosexuals who have earned God’s wrath and brought down his mighty judgment upon those who have strayed from his path. They get out of sorts whenever anyone suggests removing the “Ten Commandments” from court houses, and they are acutely upset by what they perceive to be a demonic attack on the celebration of Christmas and the “traditional” concept of marriage. Eager to shore up their version of American history, they proclaim that the “founding fathers” were devout Christians whose intent was to create a nation with solid Judeo-Christian values at its centre. They are not completely wrong. The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution included a number of conventional Christians of whom Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and John Hancock are among the more familiar. God was much upon their minds when they fashioned the founding documents of what Seymour Martin Lipset famously called “the first new nation.”
In the secular “centre” (there being no discernible “left” in the United States) are those who insist, in the alternative, that the self-same patriotic patriarchs were, at most, “Deists” and that their faith (or lack thereof) is best understood by carefully attending to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which announced a commitment to freedom of religion, and asserted the fundamental separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison figure large in the inventory of secularists. So does Tom Paine. So, it seems (though he was careful to cover his bets), does George Washington.
In Founding Faith, Steven Waldman confronts both contestants with some “inconvenient truths.” The United States was not founded on explicit Christian principles; in the alternative, the separation of church and state was not a rule introduced and imposed by secularists upon the faithful (in actuality, it reflected the wishes of evangelicals and others who feared the imposition of a state religion that would discriminate against religious minorities from Baptists to Roman Catholics).
Steven Waldman’s appointed task is to ferret out the ideas and experiences of the founders and to come to a conclusion about what they truly believed and about how they translated their religious beliefs (if any) into reliable guidelines for the proper administration of the state and the management of public affairs. Waldman approaches this task equipped with some expertise. He is the founder of the religious website Beliefnet.com, which is (according to its “mission statement”) about the most ecumenical of all possible Internet sites. It advertises itself as a means for people of all faiths and of no faith to pursue their spiritual journeys as they see fit, and provides only helpful information and universal inspiration to facilitate their quests. What could be nicer?
Waldman’s book sets about its work with an open mind and with evident sympathy for all. It provides a methodical and occasionally entertaining examination of the fundamental beliefs of the founders, but it also does a remarkably good job of staying the enthusiasm of partisans. It examines the beliefs of some of the more important early American leaders. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Washington, Jefferson and Madison’s “spiritual” beliefs are scrutinized in some detail. Unlike revisionists of both sides of the partisan wall, however, Waldman is exceptionally well-balanced in his observations, interpretations and conclusions.
In the process, he does damage to both sides in the present debate. His main conclusion is that neither side in the “custody battle” over the doctrines of the American republic’s founders has a completely convincing argument. While the United States was not proto-theocracy founded on Christian dogma, neither was it the product of an Enlightenment-based secularism. Instead, its core belief was in religious liberty, which sought to preserve diversity in faith by the simple act of leaving it alone.
If there is an important criticism of Waldman’s volume, it is that it is too even-handed. Chris Rodda, for example, has pointed out that “the historical misconceptions and misquotes used by the ‘secularists’ can be counted on one hand, while the literally hundreds of misquotes, distortions, and outright lies used by the ‘Christian nationalists’ fill volumes.” That assessment may be a trifle excessive, but the point that one side engages in ideological revisionism more than the other cannot be gainsaid.
That aside, as an exercise in historical inquiry, Waldman has produced not only a sound, reasonable and generous book, but also a cautionary tale for those who dredge about in the detritus of the past, and choose selectively among the thoughts and deeds of earlier generations in order to supply themselves with pithy quotations, historical precedents and artificial traditions to sustain their own beliefs now and into the future. Most contemporary ideas and ideals do have long pedigrees to be sure, but seeking to ground current convictions in the language and experience of the past inevitably produces oversimplifications and distortions. Waldman has demonstrated that there is much of value to be gleaned from antique customs, venerable traditions and the inventory of written records passed on from previous centuries, but they must be treated carefully, interpreted sensitively and employed in its own terms, not ruthlessly ripped from its context in order to win a debating point in circumstances which historical speakers would not have recognized, could not have envisioned and to which their notions do not directly apply.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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