Book Review

How our Founding Fathers approached faith and religious liberty

August 15, 2018

Steven Waldman’s book Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty is, at heart, a book about getting history right. It seeks to insert a composed, though not detached, assessment of our Founders’ vision of religion and religious liberty into the culture wars over religious freedom. The assertion underpinning this book is that “history seen through the lens of the culture war is history distorted” (194).

The imperative of religious liberty

In examining religion in colonial times, Waldman shows why we should not take for granted the religious liberty that we enjoy in this nation. As he shows, it was not a given that our founding documents would protect religious liberty. Waldman writes, “For more than 150 years, colonial governments actively supported the dominant faith of their states” (3).

With religious freedom enshrined in our Bill of Rights and the principle of separation of church and state so deeply entrenched in our civic and political discourse, it is easy to take the fact of religious liberty for granted. But as Waldman reminds us, a proper relationship between church and state was not, and is not, inevitable. We see this in history, also, as centuries of state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities in Europe attest, and by looking around the globe today; consider the terrible plight of religious minorities, even Muslim ones, in clergy-controlled Iran; or in China, where a one-party Communist state seeks to control and co-opt religion for its own purposes.

Founding beliefs

Because the Founders’ religious beliefs are so often proffered as reasons for doing one thing or another in matters of church and state, it is important to set the record straight on what they actually believed. Waldman does this ably, showing how the Founders disagreed on numerous issues and even designed founding documents, such as the First Amendment, so that they could be interpreted in different ways.

Waldman paints lively portraits of each Founder’s thinking on religion and public life. He makes clear that each major Founder believed that religion was important for the republic, namely because it encourages moral behavior. For example, Benjamin Franklin commented, “If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be without it?” (22). John Adams “believed that religion has its problems, but we’d all be worse off without it” (36). Our first president articulated this principle with force: “Religion and morality are indispensable supports [for “political prosperity”] . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle” (60–61). 

But the Founders did not support religion merely because they recognized that it would support the health of their nascent republic: theirs was also a personal, if mostly nonsectarian, commitment. “They were spiritual enough to care passionately about religious freedom,” writes Waldman, “but not so dogmatic that they felt duty-bound to promote a particular faith” (xv). Moreover, each came to support religious liberty in different ways, for different reasons. The examples of Jefferson, Washington, and Madison are instructive on this point. 

For Thomas Jefferson, who famously took penknife and paste to rid the New Testament of that which offended his Enlightenment sensibilities, the commitment to “the idea that people with unorthodox views should be tolerated was no mere abstraction” (76). As he wrote to the embattled Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, religion is “a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Although Jefferson strongly disliked and suspected organized religion, seeing it as historically opposed to freedom (75), he believed freedom of conscience was a natural right that the state could not—must not—impinge on. 

George Washington, whose “most significant contribution was his commitment to religious tolerance,” came to this position in large part through his experience as leader of the Continental Army. This was “one of the only truly national institutions,” and therefore Washington could not favor one sect over another if he wanted to maintain unity and succeed militarily. 

Finally, James Madison, who Waldman sees as the most consequential champion of religious liberty among the Founders, “wasn’t intensely attached to a particular [religious] approach,” so he could “embrace pluralism and the marketplace of spiritual ideas” (99). Madison was what we might call a strict separationist. In his view, “Congress had one simple assignment when it came to religion: Stay away” (154). 

Indeed, if he had had his way, we might not have the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as he did not think the Constitution should even mention religion. It may be said that part of Madison’s genius was in seeing separation of church and state as helpful to religion on its own terms. As Waldman writes, he “embraced and integrated the arguments of both Jefferson and the Baptists—that separation of church and state was essential for the functioning of democracy and for the flowering of faith” (200).

Lessons for today

What are some lessons that we who want to see and work for the flourishing of religious liberty, both at home and abroad, can take from this book? 

1. Work with others, even (or especially) when they are of a different tribe

Throughout Waldman’s book, we see examples of persons and groups who believe very differently from each other collaborating to promote religious liberty. Baptists, for example, welcomed the efforts of Jefferson to support religious liberty, even though many considered him an enemy of religion. “Baptists, believed state-supported religion violated Jesus’s teachings and deeply appreciated Jefferson’s efforts to keep government and religion far apart,” writes Waldman (x). 

Theirs was not an isolated case, either; at this time there was “a powerful alliance formed between evangelical Christians and some Enlightenment intellectuals” (xiii)—two groups who arrived at commitment to liberty of conscience from starkly differing philosophical frameworks. Two representatives of these groups were Benjamin Franklin and the Great Awakening evangelist and preacher George Whitefield, who enjoyed some affinity in part because Franklin admired Whitefield for his condemnations of slavery and promotion of progressive causes, such as education for blacks.

2. Sweat the “small” cases

Another principle present at the founding and worth repeating amid today’s challenges to religious freedom is that what may seem like trivial cases may, in fact, be of great consequence. Madison’s strong desire to keep church and state apart as far as possible is instructive here, because his position was borne not from suspicion of religion but from the conviction that strict separation was critical to maintaining the integrity of both religion and state. As Waldman notes, “[Madison] argued that even minimal government financial help for the church should terrify Americans. Be very wary of big principles being violated in small doses, Madison warned” (178). 

Many people scoff at cases where big principles are at play—for example, a young woman being asked to not wear her religious headgear during work hours at a popular clothing store; or a baker being told by the government that he has to create a cake for an event which he disapproves of for religious reasons. Many have dismissed these cases by saying things to the effect of, “So she won’t wear a head scarf for a few hours—big deal,” or “It’s just a cake!” Yet as Madison understood, when we allow important principles to be violated in seemingly trivial ways, we cannot expect them to stand in the face of bigger and more obviously consequential challenges.

3. Wisdom and charity is needed

The argument that we should do something because that was the Founders’ intention is commonplace. Implicit in this argument is the notion that the Constitution has a single and discernible intent on certain issues. Yet, as noted above, Waldman shows that the Founders did not enjoy consensus on the question of separation of church and state. Some Constitutional principles, such as those enshrined in the First Amendment, were shaped more by negotiation and compromise than by a deliberate and single-minded process of crafting language to embody a set principle (something we can more readily say about the Declaration of Independence, which had one primary author). So we should be wary of those who claim that there is a single, “constitutional” view of some these issues. 

In the light of this, Waldman calls for wisdom, and rightly so. He urges us to be less dependent on the Founders and to pick up the argument they began. “We need to ask . . . not Are these practices constitutional? but Are they wise?” (197). And indeed—is not wisdom what is most needed for those who are seeking to craft and shape public policy? This realization, moreover, should lead us to conduct ourselves in a spirit of charity. This entails not only treating our political opponents with the respect they deserve as God-made image bearers, but also refraining from assigning motives that cast them in the worst possible light. Waldman puts it well, “When we argue that our adversaries are wrong, we should remember that mostly they are likely wrong (or right) at the margins. They are inaccurate, not corrupt; mistaken, not evil” (198).

4. We have a legacy to uphold

Finally, Waldman’s book may serve as an exhortation to evangelicals to carry on a legacy of championing religious freedom. “Separation of church and state,” Waldman states, “would not exist if not for the efforts of eighteenth-century evangelicals” (xi). This is a noble legacy that we ought to uphold, if not recover. An essential part of this task is to champion religious liberty for others, not only ourselves. A true commitment to religious liberty may be seen in a readiness to defend the rights of others, especially those who are most different from us—perhaps brown-skinned Muslims and liberal atheists today—to believe and practice freely according to their conscience. 

As evangelicals, we ought to do this not only because violations of any person’s religious liberty poses a threat to the religious liberty of all, but mainly because if we truly believe God’s Word, which says that God created all people in his image (Gen. 1:27), then that means that all people have a God-given dignity that entails the freedom to believe and act on their beliefs as they choose. 

Javier Peña

Javier Peña is a foreign affairs specialist with a passion for religious freedom. After receiving a B.S. in International Politics from Georgetown University, he worked in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where he focused on Latin America and issues related to democracy and human rights. He returned to Georgetown … Read More