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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24