Courting Religion
Steven Waldman on Founding principles.


The Reverend Wright charade of the past weeks has once again brought to the forefront the debate over religion’s role in American political life. In an election year that has seen many such moments — from the miraculous rise of Mike Hucakbee, to the prospect of a Mormon in the White House, to the messianic discipleship of Obama supporters — understanding the intentions of the Founders on the matter of religion is of prime importance. Weighing in on religion and the Founding is Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith and editor of, who recently discussed the faith of the Founders, the separation of Church and State, and the flourishing of religious belief in America with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN Lopez: Your book jacket reads like you’re trying to tick off people both on the Right and the Left. Why be confrontational about religion?

STEVEN Waldman: Confrontational? The first two titles actually were, John Adams is a Big, Fat Idiot and Thomas Jefferson was a Liberal Fascist, but they seemed too derivative. I’m not trying to tick off both wings but both sides have introduced some distortions into the history and I wanted to establish at the outset that this book challenges the way we think about the birth of religious freedom. But while the first and last chapters engage in some curmudgeonly “myth busting,” the rest of Founding Faith is the (inspiring) tale of how we ended up with one of America’s greatest achievements: religious freedom. Mostly, its the story of how the Founders got it right.

Lopez: What do Americans United for the Separation of Church and State types have most wrong?

Waldman: That the First Amendment intended to separate church and state in every nook and cranny of our land. The First Amendment was a states’ rights compromise that envisioned separation at the national level but allowed a great deal of church-state mingling at the state and local level. There’s an amazing moment during the congressional deliberations on the First Amendment when Rep. Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut complains that Madison’s proposed amendment could be “extremely harmful to the cause of religion.” How could our beloved Bill of Rights harm religion? Huntington feared it might wipe out the official state establishment in Connecticut. Madison had to reassure him that Connecticut could keep having an official state religion. Madison actually wanted the First Amendment applied to the states, but he didn’t have the votes to carry the day.

Of course over time, the states got rid of the establishments, and the 14th Amendment did attempt to apply much of the Bill of Rights to the states, and that’s how we end up with prayer-in-schools cases. But it was a very gradual process, driven more by the framers of the 14th Amendment than by the framers of the First Amendment.

Another thing that some separationists get wrong is their assertion that the Founders were Deists. I believe that almost none of the Founders I studied (Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison) were truly Deists. Though some of them did have serious problems with the Bible and organized religion, they also believed in a God that intervened in history and in their lives — not a distant “watchmaker” God who created the rules and then left the scene. Even Jefferson, who famously sliced out the parts of the Bible he didn’t like, at other moments talked about God’s intervention and looked forward to reuniting with friends in Heaven.

Lopez: What are Americans for the separation of Church and State most right about?

Waldman: Alas, “separation of church and state” is not a myth concocted by 20th-century courts. While it wasn’t a unanimous, clear-cut legacy of the Founders, it was a prominent stream of thought, especially espoused by Madison and Jefferson. “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance,” he wrote Edward Livingston. “And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion and Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” Now, Madison and Jefferson didn’t always win their battles, and that’s why the First Amendment legacy is murky, but the 20th-century courts didn’t just make up “separation” out of thin air.

Lopez: You write, “a Christian who is not allowed to run a Bible study group on public school property is still allowed to worship in church, at home, in the car, on the street, at a rock concert, plugged into an iPod, or surfing on the Internet.” So should we tell the kid with the Bible study group to suck it up?

Waldman: I tend to think holding a Bible Study in a school is Constitutional but I’m not sure it’s an important battle for religious people to fight. The key is that the Bible study group actually happens. So if having it on school property is really the only way it’s going to occur, then they should fight it. If it’s easy enough to hold it somewhere else, they should do that. My concern is that we focus so much on getting religion into the public square that we start to think that the public square is essential to our spiritual lives. It’s not.

Where I tend to come down on the gray area cases is that some of them are Constitutionally permissible — but unwise. Just because something is allowed doesn’t make it a good idea. If religion can happen without government’s involvement, that’s preferable.

To be honest, some of my point here is simply that we should have a sense of perspective. If the Founders were here and heard about someone not being allowed to have a Bible study on public school property, I think some would side with ACLU (I’m guessing Madison and Jefferson) and some would side with the kid (probably Washington and Adams). But mostly they’d say: wow, you folks have way more religious freedom than we did, and way more than we thought you would. Congratulations! Perhaps we should just have a once-a-year holiday where we put our lawsuits aside and celebrate the great success of religious freedom. We can go back to suing each other the next day.

Lopez: What might the Founders say about Wright? Who would be right?

Waldman: The concept of a Jeremiah Wright would be so mind boggling on so many levels, I think their brains might just explode. They’d probably be repulsed by his comments but excited that not a single reputable pundit has suggested arresting Wright or shutting his church. In that sense, the Founders would say, Amen.

Also — and this part’s going to definitely get me in trouble — his “God damn America” line might not offend them as much as it does us. They each thought that God was supporting us in our revolution but that our wicked behavior could easily cause Him to abandon us. Adams even speculated that God might intend for America to be defeated so that its “vicious and luxurious and effeminate appetites, passion and habits” would be cleansed, laying the foundation for a more-deserved victory in the future.