Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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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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”.

Exclamation Mark

August 5th, 2009

I’m reading Ravi Zacharias’s Cries of the Heart (Good book, by the way). Ravi quotes Lewis Thomas from Medusa and the Snail:

The mere existence of that cell should be one of the greatest astonishments of the earth. People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell….If anyone does succeed in explaining it within my lifetime I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a fleet of them, and send them aloft to write one great exclamation point after another around the whole sky, until all my money runs out.

The quote impressed me with the author’s sense of wonderment–and my own lack of such wonderment. The cell is but the least of the wonderful things that I could spend my whole life astonished at. What of the new life being wrought in my friends Jolene and Jennifer as they reach the last trimesters of their pregnancies? What of the orderliness of the universe and the fine-tuning of every law to permit human life? What of the intricacies of weather systems that bring life and death, beauty and destruction? What of the miracle of regeneration?

Yet I rarely stop to wonder, much less spend my every day wondering. And I believe I have lost much in my blase grown-upness that thinks it knows the answers and therefore fails to ask the questions.

Oh, to embrace wonder once again. To return to the child-like astonishment, that on hearing why the sky is blue, asks yet again, “But why?” For indeed, the first explanation is rarely the end, it is only a springboard for a deeper sense of wonder.

May I look at life today through different eyes, through the eyes of wonder. May I take the time to wonder, to be astonished, to gasp in awe at the greatness of my Father displayed through all His creation. May my life be a grand exclamation mark, repeated with every breath–an exclamation mark punctuating the grandness of my God.

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