Friday, May 09, 2008

Founding Faith

Founding Faith is BeliefNet founder Steve Waldman's cry of Time Out in the culture wars. Using a wide of scholarly and original sources, Waldman stakes a middle ground between the hardcore secularists and the theocrats, aruguing that the Founders, on the whole, did want separation between church and state, but they were also not, on the whole, Deists, but were people of varying degrees of spirituality.

He also describes the role that faith played in colonial and revolutionary America, showing that the religious plurality played a role in the development both of the revolution and the development of political openness. While the nation was initially founded to either spread Anglicism (Virginia) or to allow Puritanism to flourish (New England), immigration rapidly turned the country into a religiously pluralistic society. The need to address the desire of many constituencies and the oppression of religious minorities (meaning Quakers and Baptists, as well as Catholics and Jews) in both North and South informed the thinking of political leaders about the need to prevent any religion from becoming the national establishment.

Waldman examines the faith lives of many of the Founders and describes how it influenced their political views, particularly on the question of religion and the state. Waldman pays the most attention to James Madison, who fought hardest for language about the separation of church and state. What may surprise many is that he thought this would strengthen religion, as a connection to the state would enervate and corrupt religion. Independent American religions have certainly thrived.

The book's chapters are short and are well balanced between the thoughts of the Founders and Waldman's analysis. The book itself is well written and relatively short (about 200 pages) which makes it less daunting than many other revolutionary histories.

Written from a center-left perspective, the book will most likely appeal to centrists of all stripes and those with limited investment in the culture war. By making concessions to both sides arguments, he may get the more open-minded to consider the views of the opposing side. For all readers, it is instructive to see the role that religion played in the development of the country. Religion is a taboo subject for many Americans and the general lack of understanding blinds us to the importance of religion in our country but also of other religions in other countries.

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