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Book Review: Founding Faith by Steven Waldman

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Steven Waldman is uniquely qualified to write a book like Founding Faith. As editor-in-chief for Beliefnet.com, Waldman has interacted with a variety of people with a variety of religious traditions. He's seen religious diversity in action, and in Founding Faith, he explores where that diversity comes from, and in the process takes on the controversial subject of the Founding Fathers and their attitudes on church-state separation. The measure of any book that dares to take on such a hot topic is who the book will potentially inflame and offend. Waldman's book will offend nearly everyone on both sides of the debate, which in my opinion makes it an outstanding book.

Waldman's discussion of Benjamin Franklin's buffet-style faith should discourage anyone who ever considered Franklin to be a colonial Christian. However, Waldman points out that Franklin was no deist. He firmly believed that man has a need "to pay Divine regards to SOMETHING" and believed in a Supreme Being that was in fact in charge of everything — not the Cosmic clockmaker that Deism projects. "He is not above caring for us, being pleas'd with our Praise, and offended when we slight Him, or neglect His Glory." (p. 19) Franklin's frustration with the Christians of his day centered on their inability to put their faith in action, it seems from Waldman's research.

Even Jefferson seems less a hardcore deist. Jefferson's own Christology would be very much in vogue today, probably landing him a position with the Jesus Seminar, joining their quest to find a Jesus unsullied by the Gospels or Paul. Jefferson's problem was never with religion; it was, as with Ghandi, with Christians and their attitudes.

The most fascinating aspect of the book, and what will surely be the most controversial as well, is Waldman's assertion that the American Revolution was fueled as much by religious concerns as it was with outrage over taxation. He traces colonial outrage with England back to Puritan outrage with the Anglican Church, and shows how most colonists were concerned that England would send over an Anglican bishop to rule over their religious lives. While I wonder if religious concerns were as influential as Waldman sometimes makes them seem (by the end of the book one could wonder if "no taxation without representation" was merely an afterthought), it's clear from the historical record that there was a significant worry on the part of the colonies that their freedom of worship was in danger.

The irony of the book is who Waldman points to as the source of the American idea of religious tolerance — the idea that anyone can worship however they want to, and no governmental body should ever interfere with that right. The folks we all have to thank for this precious freedom… were Evangelical Christians.

It's a bit of an anachronism to refer to George Whitefield and others as Evangelicals, since the term as we understand it wasn't used then. But their belief system and theology certainly were the same as the modern Evangelical movement. Whitefield believed that if citizens were allowed to hear the teachings of every religion, they would be able to make to right choice. Evangelical theology taught that the Holy Spirit drew men to God, and that the job of the preacher was merely to proclaim, not persuade or cajole. Whitefield encouraged debate, and was able to discuss theology and philosophy with anyone who would debate him. It's this spirit of discussion that led directly to the idea that all people should be allowed to freely practice their faith, with no interference from the government.

The Founding Fathers believed that religion in society produced good citizens. Rather than discourage religious practice, they wanted to encourage it among everyone. This is what led directly to the First Amendment right to freely practice your religion with no governmental interference at all. The Founders also saw the problems with state established religion. This is not the mere recognition of religion by the government that many today would have us believe; this is the imposition by law of a specific religious creed. Most colonies had an official religion, and even those who didn't had an unofficial preferred faith. They saw the tyranny that this resulted in, even among people who were earnest in their faith and normally quite passive and tolerant (the Quakers in Pennsylvania, for example). The intent of the notorious "establishment clause" was to do just that — keep there from ever being an established faith or creed in the United States. Persecuted faiths loved this. From the Baptists in Massachusetts and Virginia to the Catholics in just about every colony (including Maryland, intended to be a Catholic safe haven in the New World), the idea of religious tolerance was championed.

And this message won't be popular on either side of the debate. Secularists won't be comfortable with the fact that religion played a more prominent role in the Revolution than we've been told in history class. And the "religious right" won't appreciate the fact that many of our treasured "Christian patriots" were only members of churches because the law required them to be. Both sides of the debate have been playing fast and loose with the facts; thankfully, Steven Waldman has written Founding Faith to dispel the mythology of them both.

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