Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Faiths of our Founders, Their Views on Church/State

Given our previous discussions on the faiths of our Founding Fathers, I have been meaning to write this post for some time now. A year ago, Steve Waldman, the founder of Beliefnet and author of then new book Founding Faith, wrote for TPMCafe about the beliefs of our Founders, important in understanding the implications of the seperation of church and state. I have always felt Waldman's arguments were very fair and judicious. The following posts are each short, so if you seek further information on Waldman's research, I encourage you to read each post.

He begins with two posts on the fallacies, the non-sequitor arguments, that both liberals and conservatives employ. The Liberal Fallacy: The Founding Fathers were mostly diests or secular. The non-sequitor argument goes, the Founders believed in a strict seperation of church and state, and therefore must have been irreligious or not ardent adherents. The Conservative Fallacy: The Founding Fathers were serious Christians. This non-sequitor arguement states that the Founding Fathers were very religious, established a Christian nation, and therefore were opposed to a strict seperation of church and state. Both of these arguments are wrong, and Waldman highlights quotes and research to prove these points. Waldman argues that these fallacious arguments are born out of the culture wars:
I did start off with two provocative fallacies without shedding all that much light on why this has anything to do with the birth of religious freedom. The main reason I did that (besides hoping to get your attention) was this: the culture wars have distorted the birth of religious freedom and also the Founders’ beliefs.
Waldman believes that the Big 5 Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) probably could best be characterized as militant Unitarians.

So what did the Founders believe about Church and State? First, they disagreed with each other about the mingling of church and state - there was no consensus opinion - and secondly, although it is important to discuss their beliefs, their beliefs do not, alone, determine the law of seperation of church and state. For example, Waldman shows that Madison's beliefs were different than what the First Amendment means, and it is also important to remember that the First Amendment, whether we would like to admit it or not, contains many gray areas, unresolving the serious questions of religious establishment for later days. The effective arguement that eventually prevailed, in a coalition of enlightenment rationalists and evanglicals, was that a seperation of church and state would create a more vibrant religion.

In his last post, Waldman provides a truncated version of the development of religious liberty in America, too detailed to summarize here. Waldman argues that most of the Founders would agree with these three principles, while disagreeing on others:
* Government – certainly not the federal government, and probably not the state government -- should never establish an official religion.

* Freedom of conscience was an inalienable right – not a privilege generously offered by those in power.

* Religious diversity and pluralism was one of the most important guarantors of religious freedom.

And, today, while we do debate over the gray areas - important and legitimate disagreements - we should be proud of the great successes of our American religious freedom.


Katie said...

I came of age in the Unitarian Universalist Church, and I must say that the phrase "militant Unitarian" brings a chuckle. It's kind of like saying "Buddhist wingnut" or something.

Also (in the tradition of anally retentive hyperintellectual Unitarians), I think it's important to point out that Unitarianism in this country has shifted and morphed SIGNIFICANTLY since the time of the Founding Fathers. The belief system, practices and ethical code that they may have associated with the word Unitarian very likely is not what today's Unitarian Universalists would consider Unitarian (of course, being Unitarian, they would welcome the interpretation, possibly with bongo drums and a smudging ceremony).

For one thing, the Unitarian Universalist Association (governing body of UU churches and societies) has only been in existence in its current iteration since 1961. Additionally, because Christianity was the dominant religion at the time, most Unitarians of the 18th century would consider themselves Christians. UUism was birthed out of the Protestant Reformation, and for many, many years Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian denominations. Today, many UUs do not consider themselves Christian or even necessarily theistic, and UUism is considered (or should be considered) a separate organized religion from the "family tree" of Protestantism.

End of lesson. :-)

Anonymous said...

Washington and Adams were most definitely of Christian faith. Jefferson can best be described as a moderate deist. Franklin, on the other hand could only be considered a radical deist, based upon his personal writings.

Matt F. said...

What is the difference between a moderate deist and a radical deist? It doesn't seem to be a religious stance that could be defined in that way.

Darren Staley said...

I read Waldman's book some time ago and is per my usual, I read, remember the high points, and forget the details.

Based on my recollection, I think Drew's summary of the book is quite accurate, as were many of Waldman's points.

What makes any argument on this issue is the fact that the founders were much more nuanced than politicians today, at least at the time of the founding.

Most of them detested the ideas of political parties calling them "dangerous factions." Some misinterpret their use of the word faction to mean mob rule, when it actually meant a group of elected officials coming together to set a specific agenda.

Of course when the next few rounds of elections came, the claws came out. Jefferson and Adams figuratively kicked the crap out of each other while Hamilton and Burr literally took shots at each other. Factions became the only way to break electoral stalemates and keep the union together, for a while anyway.

In the end, one cannot take the founders' word as gospel. This is why you can write a book making them seem like evangelical saints and another book making them look like deviant athiests. Waldman's middle ground was pretty accurate.

On this specific point, the founders did not create a Christian nation nor a nation of Christians. They founded a nation of Americans, a broad swath of people with much in common and much in contest, much like themselves.

Crystal said...

Thank you for this post, which is sure to spawn necessary discussion about this issue. It is one that is ever-present in my thoughts as I just completed my thesis on just this topic.

I think it's important to point out that, regardless of personal faith, most of our founding fathers embraced an idea of "civil religion". Conceptually, and with elementary explanation, civil religion justifies the blurring of the lines between church and state to encourage morality within our government without invoking the involvement of one specific God.

Civil religious discourse became a way of justifying religious rhetoric in political speeches and of garnering popular support during wartime and other times of national strife.

What we're seeing now though is a huge shift in the definition of civil religion. Religious leaders have enjoyed a growing influence over the political process, and more political leaders are employing religious rhetoric in their discourse as a way of gathering the support of the religious majority.

A Faithful Reader said...

The faith of the founders is one of those factoids that always seems to be redefined to meet the expectations of various sides in the discussion of separation of church and state. The only real conclusion is that they were diverse in all matter of issues, including their religious views. That diversity seemed to be acceptable to them. The Church of England was disestablished and yet the Episcopal Church was allowed a level of communion with the former state church. Diversity (both/and rather than either/or)seemed to work.

Kent H said...

"All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. Have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?" (Benjamin Franklin - from "Founding Faith")

That doesn't sound like a radical deist to me. Deists see God as a "clockwinder" Who set the world in place and then just lets natural processes take their toll. No intervention from God at all. But a Christian conservative BF surely was not.