Posts Tagged ‘church and state’

Book Review: “Founding Faith” by Steven Waldman

October 5th, 2010

To listen to today’s secularists talk, one might get the impression that America’s founding fathers were ardent secularists, devoted to Enlightenment thinking, and irreligious if not antireligious. Conservative Christians tell a whole different story–a story that stars devoutly religious founding fathers who hold to an orthodox Christian faith.

Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith explores this controversial topic in a scholarly but still accessible manner. Waldman asserts that to lump “The Founding Fathers” together as though they all had the same views is a disservice to them. Instead, he explores the religious beliefs and actions of five “founding fathers” who were prominent in framing the debate for issues of religion and state.

Waldman explores the personal piety, personal and public writings, and public actions of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. He makes a good case for the plurality of religious beliefs among the founding fathers–as well as for the plurality of interpretations of how church and state should best interact.

I enjoyed Founding Faith tremendously, finding it to be a balanced, scholarly work that shines a great deal of light on the difficult question of what the Founding Fathers believed about religion in general and about state involvement in religion in particular.

I was interested to see the emphasis Waldman places on Madison as a primary framer of the “Establishment of Religion” clause. Waldman introduces Madison as a pious man, perhaps the most orthodox of the five men considered in this book. Unlike Jefferson, who primarily wanted separation of church from state for the sake of the state, Madison was interested in preserving the purity and vitality of the church from state intervention. Madison wished for an even more stringent separationist position–in part because of his sympathy for Virginian Baptists who decried the establishment of religion as oppressive to minority sects such as themselves.

As I said, this book is balanced and informative treatment of the faith of America’s founders and their views of how state and religion should interact. Lovers of history will enjoy this book–as will anyone who has ever been confused by contradictory reports of the Founders’ faith (or lack thereof).


Rating: 4 stars
Category: American History/Religion/Church and State
Synopsis: Waldman describes the religious beliefs of five founding fathers–and how each founding father felt the church should (or should not) be involved in religious affairs.
Recommendation: A wonderfully balanced portrayal of the faith of the founding fathers. Definitely worth reading.


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Church and State

August 27th, 2010

Jon Meacham’s introduction to American Gospel (link is to my review) was sufficient to give me fodder for an entire post of quotes. The rest of the book proved to be equally rife in thought provoking quotes.

I present a brief selection (since I probably ought not retype the entire book!)

“Winthrop’s text [‘City upon a hill’] is frequently used as a source of reassurance about our exceptional national destiny, yet we should not be so quick to think that an ancient phrase of his can help us smooth over the rougher passages of our history, or that telling ourselves we are a special people entitles the country or any element within it to impose its will on others under the cloak of divine sanction.”

This reminds me of…well…Calvinism…actually. You see, Calvinists should be the most humble people in the world. After all, we affirm that we have been saved by absolutely no merit or choice of our own. Likewise, if America has indeed been called to be a city on a hill (although, of course, that passage refers to disciples of Christ, not to America)–but if America had been called to be a city on a hill, that should be an incredibly humbling thing. To be chosen by God to be on display? Surely not because we are great, but because He has some purpose to work through us. This ought drive us to our knees, to humility, that we might live for and fulfill His purposes–not that we should proudly consider him to have given His stamp of approval to our purposes.

Williams was mostly interested in saving the church from the state, not the state from the church. The world was the world; the kingdom of God was something else entirely. ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,’ Jesus said, ‘and to God the things that are God’s.’ Williams called for a ‘hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.’ Note that Williams was not planting a hedge or building a wall to protect the state, but rather religion, believing that the ambitions and vices of men could pervert the church, turning faith into a means of temporal power.”

I think Williams and Greg Boyd would have gotten along together well :-)

“Even the preachers of the day saw the wisdom of keeping Williams’ garden and wilderness separate. The reasoning was rooted in both conviction and in pragmatism: church and state would be more powerful apart than they would have been if joined together.”

A very interesting statement to be sure. Are church and state more powerful apart than together?

“‘The magistrate is to govern the state, and Christ is to govern the church,’ said Reverend Samuel Stillman in a 1779 sermon to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. ‘The former will find business enough in the complex affairs of government to employ all his time and abilities. The latter is infinitely sufficient to manage his own kingdom without foreign aid.’ The religious knew, too, that to ally themselves with the powers of the temporal world might result in momentary gain, but only momentary.

I love that last line of Stillman’s: “The latter [Christ] is infinitely sufficient to manage his own kingdom without foreign aid.” Amen!

“‘[In] allying itself with a political power,’ Tocqueville said, ‘religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.’…He was not speaking theoretically, but from experience and history. ‘In Europe, Christianity has permitted itself to be intimately united with the powers of the earth,’ he said. ‘Today these powers are falling and it is almost buried under their debris.'”

Thinking of the fate of Christianity in the former Holy Roman Empire and both its Catholic and Protestant successors, I am inclined to think that this historical argument is a great one against the marriage of church and state.

“[Franklin] did not mean to imply, he said, that ‘our General convention was divinely inspired when it formed the new federal Constitution….Yet I must own that I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance…should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler.‘”

If God is indeed sovereign and sovereignly orders the world according to His will, then America is what it is because God willed it. But this is not reason for boasting, as though God places His stamp of approval on all that America does. Rather, it should be reason for trembling, since the same God who raises nations can also fell them in accordance with His will.

“If the first shall be last and the last first, then who are Christians to exert power over others by the sword or the purse or the polling place?”

An utterly fascinating question–with an incredibly complex answer (Our book club over The Myth of a Christian Nation spent ten or so weeks discussing that question–and I’m not sure we managed to come to any definitive conclusion.)

Book Review: “The Myth of a Christian Nation” by Greg Boyd

August 23rd, 2010

View my disclosure statement for more information on how I choose books to review.

America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Our founding fathers were Christians. America is a second Israel, a chosen nation to promote God’s message around the world. Christians in America need to take America back for God–we need to outlaw abortion, pass laws to protect the sanctity of marriage, and fight for Christian prayer in schools.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It certainly does to me–a homeschooled daughter of conservative Christians. My school textbooks read America as a Christian nation through and through–until the corrupt sixties destroyed everything. Admittedly, I generally took this story of history with a grain of salt–but I know plenty who had been raised on the secularly revisionist history of the US who now take this “Christian” version as gospel truth. To them, the call to “take America back for God” is THE calling of the American church.

Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation challenges these and other assertions of the “religious right.”

Boyd’s primary thesis is that Christians miss the point when they make political involvement central to faith. Boyd argues that there is a fundamental difference between the way “the kingdoms of the world” operate and the way “the kingdom of God” operates. The kingdoms of the world attempt to change behavior by exercising power over people; while the kingdom of God changes hearts as the church demonstrates what Boyd calls “power under” living–service and self-sacrifice, following the example of Christ in the cross. Boyd argues that when Christians emphasize politics (a “power over” approach), they dilute or pollute their Christian witness–and fail to walk in Christ-like “power under” love.

I have to say that this book was rather uncomfortable for me–pretty much all the way through. While Boyd states from the beginning that his beef is not merely with the “religious right” but with any political agenda that the church takes on as its own, 100% of his criticism is of the religious right. As a conservative, and one who would probably be lumped by pollsters into the category “the religious right”, I struggled against the temptation to be offended by Boyd’s one-sided criticisms of conservatives.

I spent at least the first three chapters “reserving judgment”. I wanted to hear Boyd out, to really listen to what he had to say. And I’m glad I did.

Boyd’s strength in this book is his clear emphasis on how the kingdom of God differs from the kingdom of the world–and that the primary concern of the Christian should be to exercise kingdom of God “power under” rather than kingdom of the world “power over”. He makes a wonderful point that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world are completely distinct–and should be kept completely distinct.

“To be sure, a version of the kindgdom of the world that effectively carries out law, order, and justice is indeed closer to God’s will for the kingdom of the world.… But no version of the kingdom of the world is closer to the kingdom of God than others because it does its job relatively well. For God’s kingdom looks like Jesus, and no amount of sword-wielding, however just it may be, can ever get a person, government, nation, or world closer to that. The kingdom of God is not an ideal version of the kingdom of the world; it’s not something that any verison of the kingdom of the world can aspire toward or be measured against. The kingdom of God is a completely distinct, alternative way of doing life.”
~Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation

Boyd does a good job, in my opinion, of urging Christians to see living in a Christ-like, others-serving, “power-under” manner as their primary call; rather than seeking political influence as their primary goal. What Boyd does less well is clearly articulate how a Christian might have a godly attitude towards and involvement in politics. That is, one could easily read Boyd and think that the only appropriate thing a Christian can do in relationship with politics is to quietly vote his or her conscience. While Boyd never explicitly says that a Christian could never campaign for a candidate or cause, run for office, or otherwise “move and shake” politically–that is the impression that this book gives.

Because I am not a huge fan of the “Christian nation” narrative made popular in works such as Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory, I was not particularly worried about or offended by Boyd’s alternate narrative which makes America out to be an almost completely secular nation (a la current secular revisionist history.) However, my reading on the subject (two excellent books on church and state and the founding of America are Jon Meacham’s American Gospel and Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith) suggests that the reality fell somewhere in between these two extremes. Again, since my presupposition (as well as my reading of history) falls somewhere between the two extremes, I took Boyd’s rendering with a grain of salt, just as I have with Marshal and Manuel’s. But I wonder if Boyd’s extreme secular interpretation fo history would drive away those who have fully bought into what Boyd calls the “Myth” of a christian nation–making them unable or unwilling to see his true thesis amidst their (partly justifiable) outrage.

I have tons more thoughts on The Myth of a Christian Nation–but I’m already running rather long. This book (and the book club with which I read it) challenged me greatly, changing my mind on some things, clarifying my thoughts on others, and encouraging me to search deeper on yet more. Even though I do not find myself agreeing with everything that Boyd has written (or perhaps because I do not agree with everything Boyd wrote), I am very glad that I read this book–and that I chose to hear Boyd out through the sections which I could have chosen to take deep offense at.

I encourage other readers to do the same. Read this book, choose to reserve judgment, choose to quell the offense you might be tempted to take, choose to search through and pray through Boyd’s thesis. Maybe Boyd will change your mind. Maybe he won’t. But I promise you that you’ll have a deeper and wider perspective on the kingdom of God and on how politics may or may not fit in that for having wrestled with Boyd’s arguments.


Rating:4 stars
Category: Religion and Politics
Synopsis: Boyd argues that “the quest for political power is destroying the church.”
Recommendation: Many may find this book offensive (I know I was definitely tempted to take offense)–but I think Boyd’s thesis is certainly worth grappling with. Christians (particularly those who are interested in politics) would do well to read this book and wrestle through the ideas found within.

WiW: A “Christian” Nation?

July 19th, 2010

The Week in Words

I’m still working my way through Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation with my Monday night book club–but as so often happens, one book spawns another. When I saw Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, I was curious to hear what he had to say about religion in America. I’ve only read the introduction so far, but it appears that this could be a VERY interesting treatment of the topic.

Meacham clearly sees the United States as unique and exceptional (I’m a bit of an American exceptionalist myself), but attributes this exceptionalism neither to a Christian founding of the nation nor to a non-Christian founding of the nation (as many might). Rather, he seems to attribute this exceptionalism to the interesting balance that the founders merged between secular government and religious freedom. I’m most intrigued by the potential of this book.

On America’s early years:

“America’s early years are neither a golden age of religion nor a glowing hour of Enlightenment reason. Life was shaped by evangelical fervor and ambitious clergy, anxious politicians and determined secularists. Some Christians wanted to impose their beliefs on the rest of the country; other equally committed believers though faith should steer clear of public life. In the fulcrum stood the brilliant but fallible political leadership of the new nation. The Founding Fathers struggled to assign religion its proper place in civil society–and they succeeded.

On opposing claims made regarding the Founding Fathers:

“The right’s contention that we are a ‘Christian nation’ that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument….Conservatives are not alone in attempting to appropriate the Founding for their own ends. Many Americans, especially secular ones, tend to stake everything on Jefferson’s wall between church and state….The wall Jefferson referred to is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics.

On how religion has shaped America:

“Taken all in all, I think history teaches that the benefits of faith in God have outweighed the costs….Guided by this religiously inspired idea of God-given rights, America has created the most inclusive, freest nation on earth. It was neither easy nor quick: the destruction of Native American cultures, the ravages of slavery, the horrors of the Civil War, and the bitterness of Jim Crow attest to that. And there is much work to be done. Yet while the tides of history are infinitely complex, other major Western powers have had a worse time of it than America, and our public religion, with its emphasis on the supremacy of the individual and its cultivation of moral virtue, is one reason why….Religion alone did not spare America, but the Founding Fathers’ belief in the divine origin of human rights fundamentally shaped our national character, and by fits and starts Americans came to see that all people were made in the image of ‘Nature’s God,’ and were thus naturally entitled to dignity and respect.

Quoting Robert Ingersoll (in what I view as the most provocative statement yet, especially in light of our discussion group):

“Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world….our fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword…

I’m interested to see how Meacham develops these thoughts throughout the book!

Collect more quotes from throughout the week with Barbara H’s meme “The Week in Words”.

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