Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Founding Faith by Steven Waldman

After listening to Waldman's interview with Krista Tippett, I looked forward to reading this one. Waldman does a superbly balanced job in describing the beliefs of the major founders of America: Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison. These men's beliefs, like everyone's, evolved over time. You cannot simply apply convenient labels to them.

Toward the end of the book, he summarizes 8 conservative and liberal fallacies described in the book. There is not room here to list them all, but here is a sample of each.

Conservative Fallacy 1:
Most Founding Fathers were serious
Of course it depends on how we define the term, but if
we use the defini­tion of Christianity offered by those who make this claim—
conservative Christians—then the Founders studied in this book were not
Christians. Jefferson and Franklin overtly rejected the divinity of Jesus.
Jefferson loathed the entire clerical class and what had become of Christianity.
Adams became an active Unitarian, rejecting much Christian doctrine. And
Franklin, Jeffer­son, and Adams abhorred the Calvinist idea that salvation
was determined by divine preference rather than good works. Madison and
Washington re­mained the most silent on matters of personal theology and
continued to attend Christian churches, but in their voluminous writings never
seemed to speak of Jesus as divine. If they must wear labels, the closest would
be Uni­tarian.

Liberal Fallacy 2:
The Constitution
demanded strict separation of church and state throughout the land.

Actually, the original Constitution called for the federal government to
keep out of religious affairs but allowed states--which governed most matters—to
mingle church and state as much as they wanted. Had the original
Constitu­tion attempted to impose separation of church and state throughout
the land, it probably would not have been ratified. Liberals can certainly argue
for strict and pervasive separation, but they cannot claim all the Founders as


  1. good to know this stuff. easy to fall into traps of generalization. and their contributions are no less significant if they were human and diverse.

  2. I would argue though that Adams at least seemed like he was a pretty firm believer even if he wasn't a traditional conservative Christian.