Religion, society and politics in the USA. We seem to rediscover our faith every few generations, rekindling the debates about the role of individual, faith communities, and government. The current cycle of discussion may have begun with the Evangelical revival of Reverend Billy Graham in the 1960s’ and ‘70’s, which emphasized the rebirth of the individual through realization, confession, and baptism in Christian faith. Jerry Farwell linked this personal commitment to a social movement, the Moral Majority, in the 1980’s. Other fundamentalist Christian leaders pushed the movement further into the political area with the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family in the follow decades. Al Queade challenged the assumption that Christianity had the only version of fundamentalism, attacking western culture in general, and at various locations throughout Islamic regions of the world, as well as on the USA’s own shores. In the balance of these debates are the roles of personal faith, religious pluralism, and governance. Steven Waldman explores the history of religion in the USA in his text Founding Faith.
Waldman outlines the current positions of those advocating for more religious guidance in our laws, and those seeking to keep faith a personal decision with laws remaining neutral on those decisions. But, this is only the introduction and final chapters of the book. The rest of the chapters he devotes to the origins of these arguments, which played out during the colonial period of our country, the Revolution and Constitutional conventions, and first four presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Even Reverend Graham’s revival has precedent in the Great Awaking of George Whitefield in the 18th century. Two additional patriots, but not Presidents, whom he examines, are Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry. Unlike our coin today, with its apparent two opposing sides, our founders were a six-sided die. Furthermore, politics were as contentious and dirty as they are today.
Anyone who argues that religion had nothing to do with the colonial settlements, or who argues that the colonies were established for religious freedom, needs to do some research. Christopher Columbus wrote as much about the destiny of Christianity (Catholicism, specifically) guiding his westward voyages, as finding quick trade routes to the Orient. The May Flower Compact was all about survival through faith. And, strong faith may have been as important to the survival of settlers who had to carve out homes and farms against cold winters and hot summers. On the other hand, most colonies accepted one religious denomination (Congregationalist in New England, and Anglican in Virginia and other southern colonies, specifically). Tolerance for Quakers, Baptists, and Catholics, not to mention Jews, did not have much foothold until Rodger Williams set up the Rhode Island and Providence plantations.
The arguments that the colonial Revolution was fought to allow for religious freedom, also miss the point that the colonials were fighting against the taxes that supported the Anglican church. New Englanders were ready to set up their Congregational churches with government support throughout the new nation. The Anglicans in Virginia were ready to promote the Episcopal (USA Anglican denomination) in the same way, just without government funding. All those other denominations would just get squeezed out.
Ben Franklin and General Washington were two pragmatic compromisers among the early leaders. Franklin wrote about the risk of oppression by any state supported religion. Franklin wanted to broker neutrality between different colonial governments so that no one denomination could control others. Washington saw the potential for conflict within his troops, who held a range of religious positions, including Catholicism. He appointed chaplains of various Christian denominations to promote cooperation among the troops. He needed he fighting for the same cause, not against each other.
As with any break-away nation, once the battles are over, the leaders had to figure out how to organize the structure of the government. During the Constitutional Convention debates, on the issue of religion and the state, Jefferson and Madison were the strongest advocates for keeping a distance between the two. Others, specifically Patrick Henry and John Adams, advocated for the federal government not establishing religious conduct but permitting states to do so. This topic was too contentious for the Constitutional Convention to resolve, so it was pushed back to the Bill of Rights. Jefferson kept scratching out any reference to God and religion from his drafts of the Constitution, while other committee members kept penciling them in.
Madison, meanwhile, was drafting corrections to what others viewed as a failed-from-the-start document. His Second Amendment, to define and limit the scope of government and religion, would go through a similar process of wording and re-wording numerous times. Again, the primary conflict would be whether federal powers applied to states. One side wanted to keep the federal government out of their churches, but wanted the states to take a prominent pew in the sanctuary.
Madison would eventually accept watered-down language to prevent the whole Bill of Rights process from folding. Washington as President would evoke the divine numerous time in speeches and prayers in his attempt to unify the new nation. Henry, as governor of Virginia, would gerrymander Madison’s district, to try to prevent him from being elected to congress, in retaliation for Madison’s legal defense of Baptists ministers who would not play by Virginia’s rules. Adams would bring his Congregational traditions to the Presidency, advocating for states selecting one religion for each state. Jefferson would be vilified during his presidential campaign for being an “atheist”. And, Madison would try to unravel the mess during his term in office.
Ultimately, the issue of the state and religion would be a can kicked down the road along with the issue of slavery. Our Civil War would bring the 14th Amendment, which declared that federal laws applied to states. For 150 years, legislation and court decisions have defined the relationship between our faiths and our state-houses.
For all the wrangling, Waldman brings us back from the positions of each side, to the process of governance. His writing is scholarly (about 50 pages of notes), but not dry. He has his position, but outlines each side’s arguments, with their strengths and weaknesses. He includes many quotes from the writings and speeches of the founders. Furthermore, he gives the full quote and context. Many of these we recognize in propaganda sound-bites, as if they had some greater meaning and influence because someone said them a few centuries ago. Founding Faiths may not end up in your vacation beach bag with your swim suit, towel, and 50 spf sunscreen. But, when you a ready to understand our current rhetoric and past history between church and state, pick up a copy.