Politics & Policy

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 BeliefNet.com, 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.

Lopez: Would they be surprised that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talk more on the campaign trail about religion than McCain, the Republican?

Waldman: Since they wouldn’t know much about Republicans and Democrats I’m not sure they’d be surprised. They certainly wouldn’t be surprised that the candidates are using religious language in their speeches. George Washington’s use of religious rhetoric was so intense that George W. Bush seems like an ACLU board member by comparison.

Lopez: Do you have a favorite Founder on religion?

Waldman: Madison. He came up with the most holistic and sophisticated vision of religious freedom. He incorporated the Enlightenment arguments warning that church-state mingling would hurt government but, more importantly, he also learned from the 18th-century evangelicals who believed that keeping government away from religion was crucial for promoting religion.

That may seem obvious now but back then the conventional wisdom was that if you wanted to help religion, you should have the government support it. Madison and the Baptists believed that government help would hurt. What’s rarely acknowledged is that Madison went to an evangelical college (Princeton), defended imprisoned Baptists, and got elected to the House thanks to the votes of evangelicals. We wouldn’t have religious freedom if not for the 18th-century evangelicals.

Lopez: You write that Madison would be happy to see rabbis and imams as congressional chaplains but would want more religions represented. Would he stop before there was a Scientologist chaplain on the Hill?

Waldman: Keep in mind that Madison was the most extreme of the Founders on these issues. The others were fine with taxpayer-funded chaplains. Madison argued against taxpayer supported chaplains entirely, as a violation of the First Amendment. So he would probably say — “see this is exactly the problem. If we have taxpayer supported chaplains for Protestants, Catholics, Muslims etc, where do we draw the line?” I think Franklin would have taken a more-the-merrier approach. Would he have included Scientologists? Well, at one point he believed that the uber-God had appointed a set of deputy gods to run each planet, so he mightn’t have felt he was in a position to judge.

Lopez: Do the Founding Fathers provide a blueprint for religious freedom that could be exported to, say, Iraq?

Waldman: I think so. Madison’s key point: getting rid of state-run religion doesn’t mean you’re getting rid of religion. In fact, it’s because we haven’t had state-run religion that America is the most religiously vibrant country in the West. At the end of his life, Madison surveyed the landscape and made the case for why eliminating the state-church connection was a good idea to a friend. His evidence? Not that the political system was more pure, or religious minorities were safer. His evidence was that separation had produced more religion, better clergy, and more piety. The “Founding faith” in a nutshell, was not secularism or Christianity, it was the commitment to promoting religion . . . by leaving it alone.

Lopez: The Founders worshipped at the Church of Adam Smith?

Waldman: It’s striking how much they applied a free-market sensibility to matters of religion. They believed that if you just got government out of the way, the truth would rise to the top. “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself,” said Franklin. Madison even accused those who wanted government support of religion of having “unchristian timidity” — i.e. a lack of confidence in their own faith’s ability to win in a marketplace of opportunities. Once you accept the premise that in a free market of religious ideas “the truth” will rise to the top, pluralism becomes religion’s friend, rather than a threat.

Lopez: Mike Huckabee isn’t a 20th-century phenom, is he — inasmuch as he is a prominent evangelical?

Waldman: Modern evangelicals often argue for more religion in the public square and often argue that separation of church and state is a myth concocted by liberal 20th-century judges. Actually, it was the 18th century evangelicals, mostly Baptists, who led the charge for religious freedom and separation of church and state. They believed it was a more biblically sound approach. They rallied against Patrick Henry’s proposal to have tax dollars help religion in general, arguing that the idea was “founded neither in Scripture, on Reason, on Sound Policy; but is repugnant to each of them,” as one petition declared.

I would love to see a debate between 21st century evangelicals and 18th-century evangelicals. The 18th-century evangelicals might be puzzled how their theological descendents ended up wanting more government entanglement with religion. I’m hoping Founding Faith triggers a new discussion among evangelicals and conservatives about what really ought to be the conservative/evangelical position. It seems to me those who believe that government messes up everything it touches should be more skeptical about having government involved in religion.

Lopez: As the founding father of BeliefNet.com, what were your motivations and quo vadis?

Waldman: I wrote Founding Faith because, as editor of Beliefnet, I was inundated with people on various sides of the church-state debate quoting the Founding Fathers to prove one thing or another. I wanted to find out what actually happened. It turns out the culture wars have pretty thoroughly distorted how we actually ended up with religious freedom.

Secondly, Beliefnet is a site that thrives on religious freedom — it’s free marketplace of religious ideas. John Adams wrote: “I am, therefore, of opinion that men ought (after they have examined with unbiased judgments every system of religion, and chosen one system, on their own authority, for themselves), to avow their opinions and defend them with boldness.” Couldn’t this quote be the official Beliefnet motto?

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