Liberating the Founders
Steven Waldman is the author of Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. He is the founder and former editor of Beliefnet and now heads Daily Bridge Media.
October 30, 2008
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Liberating the Founders.” Americans remain divided about how much religion they want in their political life. As we elect a new president, we return to an evocative, relevant conversation from earlier this year with journalist Steven Waldman. From his unusual study of the American founders, he understands why 21st-century struggles over religion in the public square spur passionate disagreement and entanglement with politics at its most impure.
MR. STEVE WALDMAN: You want to at some point reach back in time and just kind of slap Madison in the face and say — gently, because he was a frail man, but still you want to shake him and say, ‘Don’t you realize what trouble you’re making for us? Can’t you be much clearer about this? We’re going to have 200 years of fights over this; could you please be more clear?’
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. As the U.S. presidential campaign draws to a close, Americans remain divided about how much religion they want in their political life. This hour, we explore this on going discord through an evocative, relative conversation I had earlier this year, with journalist Steven Waldman. He says that the culture wars of recent years distorted Americans’ understanding of the nation’s Founding Fathers and the meaning of religious liberty. This hinders us, Steven Waldman says, from grasping what is really at stake in our current debates about the relationship between government and religion. It may even undermine the wisdom we might bring to young democracies around the world. Warning: The conversation that follows may not mirror what you learned in school.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Liberating the Founders.”
Steven Waldman was a correspondent and editor at Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report until the late 1990s. As he saw religion rise in visibility and importance in American public life, he founded Beliefnet.com. Beliefnet is now one of the world’s largest multifaith Web sites devoted to spirituality and religion. As a journalist and commentator, Waldman has refused to perpetuate the liberal-conservative divide that was deepened by the culture wars of recent election seasons.
I last interviewed him in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, after he wrote a thoughtful article decrying the poll-driven moral values debate. Leading voices on both sides of the political aisle, he said, were willfully misunderstanding and caricaturing each other to our collective detriment. And in the period since, Waldman began to notice that both liberals and conservatives had begun to use the American Founders to justify their approach to politics and religion and the relationship between the two.
MR. WALDMAN: Not a day would go by where I wouldn’t get an e-mail from some interest group or advocacy group on left or right claiming that the Founding Fathers agreed with them about something. And given how profoundly important that is, I felt like it was a great time to dive into this topic and try to sort out what really happened without the distortions of a political agenda. I also just came to believe that a lot of what we believe, about why we have religious freedom in America, is wrong. And that it’s kind of an important thing for us to understand, so we can treasure it.
MS. TIPPETT: Steven Waldman’s response to that is his latest book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. It’s a journalistic and historical investigation of the volatile, gradual formation of a new kind of relationship between religion and state in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. Waldman explores a world before “red states” and “blue states.” Religious diversity meant different forms of Protestantism. And there were deeply religious voices on every side of the debate over separation of church and state.
Evangelical Christians, Baptists, and other forefathers of today’s Evangelicals were among separation’s most passionate proponents. They worked in partnership with Deists, who believed in God but not Trinitarian Christianity. And Steven Waldman reveals a far less harmonious picture than summaries of American religious liberty usually suggest.
Separation of church and state evolved, as he now sees it, after more than a century of experimentation with state religion, marked at times by the same kind of intolerance and violence the colonists had come to the New World to escape.
MS. TIPPETT: Most people tend to think of, well the Founding Fathers were aware of persecution in Europe, and they wanted to avoid official religions in Europe. And that’s partially true, but almost all of the colonies had official or semiofficial religions. And in fact, you could look at the first 150 years of colonial history as one experiment after another of people trying to have state-supported religion. In New England, it was the congregational churches, the Puritans, and in the Southern states, it was the Church of England. In Pennsylvania, it was Quakers. And the one thing that all of these experiments had in common is they all failed. There’s really a lot that is quite painful. For instance, the treatment of Quakers in early American history was not just a case of harassment or persecution, it was illegal to be a Quaker. And Quakers were thrown in jail and in fact executed. There’s, you know, a case of a woman named Mary Dyer, who I feel like every school child ought to know the story of Mary Dyer. She was a …
MS. TIPPETT: Did you discover this story of Mary Dyer when you were doing this research for the first time?
MR. WALDMAN: I had never heard of her before.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And this was in the Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts, right, where this took place?
MR. WALDMAN: Yes, in Massachusetts. And she was, you know, an upstanding woman in the community, and she was a churchgoing person. And then she — along with some other people — started having what we would now call Bible studies in their homes and were offering up views that were different from the established church. She was criticized for that, then she later became a Quaker. They banished her a few times. She kept coming back because she believed in the righteousness of her cause and in the truth of her beliefs. And they sentenced her to death along with two other Quakers. They whipped her; they all went up had the ropes put around their necks. Her two colleagues were executed; at the last minute she got a reprieve. The whole idea was for her to watch her friends be executed. She went away; she came back again. She was sentenced to death again. As she marched out to the oak tree on the Boston Common, they had drummers playing so that she would not be able to speak out and say anything to the crowd. And there they executed her in the Boston Common.
MS. TIPPETT: And who was “they”? “They” executed her. Would that be the government of Massachusetts or the church?
MR. WALDMAN: Well, you know, it’s a good question, because at the time the government and the church were sort of the same thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: It was the church fathers and the government working together that held the trial and sentenced her to death. There’s a second bout of persecution that I think is also really significant and has not had nearly enough attention, which is — there was a lot of persecution of Baptists throughout the colonies that I think has been written about. What is really interesting is that one of the pockets where the persecution was most intense happened to be in a couple of northern Virginia counties at the time that James Madison was a young man and living there. It actually was a part of northern Virginia that gave us Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Henry, and George Mason.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s amazing, isn’t it?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah, very fertile ground. So for Madison the question of religious liberty was not something he was reading about only in Locke or hearing about as European phenomenon. He was literally seeing it in his local courthouse, with Baptists, who were being thrown in jail simply for preaching their own gospel.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, it does seem like we have transposed, as you kind of described at the beginning, our own questions and the divisions of our time onto our understanding of the Founding Fathers. There seem to be kind of two positions that either, you know, really they were all Deists and not Christian at all and the idea of their religiosity has been — has been inflated. And then, on the other side, there are people who say that the Founding Fathers expected religion to be thoroughly enmeshed with government, and we moderns have betrayed that vision. But you found a much more diverse and complicated picture.
MR. WALDMAN: Yes, it seems like nowadays there’s kind of two scripts, and you have to choose one or the other. This dichotomy would have seemed utterly baffling to the Founders. For one thing, the Founders who supported separation of church and state mostly did it because they wanted to promote religion, not discourage religion.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALDMAN: The whole idea was that this was a strategy for encouraging the growth of religion, by leaving it alone. And there were others who thought that the way to encourage religion was by having the state support it, but they both agreed that the goal was to encourage religion. And that’s just not a viewpoint that’s reflected in the modern debate. And I did find James Madison to be the most interesting one on this, because he was really the one who came up with the most holistic vision for religious liberty that combined first what he was hearing from Evangelical Christians, um, Baptists …
MS. TIPPETT: He went to Princeton didn’t he? Which at that time was an Evangelical college.
MR. WALDMAN: Exactly, and in fact we would not have religious liberty without the 18th-century Evangelicals. They were Madison and Jefferson’s foot soldiers in the drive for religious liberty. And often they were the philosophers who helped them think through the case for religious liberty. Some of the Evangelical support for separation of church and state was obviously practical, which was that the Evangelicals were being persecuted.
MS. TIPPETT: They were in the frontlines to be persecuted without it. Right.
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah. And so they had an obvious interest in breaking up the authority of the established churches, which were preventing them from praying the way they wanted. But there was a theology to it as well, which is that the Evangelicals believed in a personal relationship with God that didn’t have to always go through intermediary institutions, didn’t have to go through clergy or church. It was a small-d democratic approach. So that kind of individual liberty approach to religion obviously meshed perfectly with the revolutionary spirit that Jefferson and Madison and others were arguing as it related to the crown, saying also the individual has the right to liberty.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet editor and chief Steven Waldman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Liberating the Founders.” We’re exploring Steven Waldman’s fresh look at the early American formation of religious liberty and separation of church and state.
Adding to the genre of modern books exploring the legacy of the U.S. Founding Fathers, Steven Waldman has focused on the spiritual lives of figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and how this influenced their various approaches to religious liberty. He was most surprised, he says, to find echoes and contrasts between that era and ours in the importance of forefathers of today’s Evangelical Christians. He also found an unlikely comfort in this investigation — a kind of permission for the fact that 21st-century struggles over religion in the public square spur passionate disagreement and entanglement with politics at its most impure.
MR. WALDMAN: My favorite example is that after the Constitutional Convention there was a first election, the Congressional election. And James Madison, having just helped father the Constitution, went back to Virginia to run for Congress. And you’d think that the guy who just created Congress would have, you know, a reasonably simple time of getting elected. But he had made an enemy of Patrick Henry, who was the governor of Virginia. And the reason he had made an enemy of Patrick Henry was really important — was that a couple years earlier, Patrick Henry had supported an idea of having state-supported religion, having taxpayer dollars support teachers and churches in Virginia. And Madison led the opposition to that. Madison won with the help of the Evangelicals in the state. So now a flash forward a few years: Madison is now going back to try to run for Congress, and Patrick Henry really has it in for him. So Madison first wants to be a Senator and Patrick Henry says no, and he just blocks it. Then Madison says well I’ll run for Congress from the districts that, you know, that support me. And Patrick Henry carves out this district that he thinks won’t support Madison.
MS. TIPPETT: Sounds like politics wasn’t any friendlier back then than it is now.
MR. WALDMAN: No, it wasn’t. This was tough. And then make it worse: Patrick Henry recruits James Monroe, who was a war hero from the Revolutionary War, to run against Madison. So Madison has this really tough election to the House of Representatives. And it turns out that the pivotal factor in the race is whether or not Madison could win the Evangelical votes in his district. So that’s worth pausing on right there, that a key constituency in Madison’s congressional district was Evangelical Christians.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALDMAN: And he had to go and court them. And the thing that they were most fearful of was that the Constitution, this was before the Bill of Rights, did not adequately guarantee religious freedom. And at that point, Madison actually didn’t really agree. He thought it was OK the way it was. He was not an early supporter of the Bill of Rights, ironically. But they said, ‘Unh-unh, come on. We know you’ve been with us in the past but this is really important to have religious freedom.’ And Madison made what was probably the most important “read my lips” campaign pledge in American history. He said to the Evangelical leaders in his district that, ‘if you elect me, the first thing I will do is put forward a Bill of Rights and it will have religious freedom as one of its core components.’ And they agreed and they got him elected and he kept his promise.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s how we got the First Amendment, in part.
MR. WALDMAN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about what you learned about Jefferson, because I think Jefferson is the one people feel they probably know more about — or that most of us feel we know more about, more than James Madison. You write that “understanding Thomas Jefferson’s take on faith means understanding a fury — his fury.” What are you talking about there?
MR. WALDMAN: You know when you read Jefferson’s letters, not so much the public documents like the Declaration of Independence, but his personal letters, he seems absolutely furious — enraged — at a few things. He’s enraged at the church. He’s enraged at everyone who he thinks distorted Jesus’ message, and I mean everyone starting with Paul and the Apostles, who he thought very little of. And thought Paul was corrupt. He thought Calvin should be put in a straightjacket.
MS. TIPPETT: Calvin was an atheist, he thought, right?
MR. WALDMAN: Yes, and, you know, insane, and he thought that priests were charlatans and basically that, you know, the history of the world was a thousand years of corruptions of Jesus’ words and that that process began almost immediately. And he was — he was very angry about it. And I think one of the things that is lost when we talk about Jefferson, is we look at him as a Deist and we think that it’s a kind of a calm abstract approach. And it is true that he was very hostile to the church of the time and to the literal interpretations of the Bible, but it’s almost like he was like a, you know, a parent who’s trying to find a kidnapped child. He was on a quest to rescue Jesus from what he thought had happened to Jesus.
So famously, he actually embarked on a project, which resulted in what is now called the Jefferson Bible.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. WALDMAN: And the Jefferson Bible, he started it actually while he was in the White House, and then did it again in later years, in 1819. And he literally sat there with four versions of the Bible: Greek, Latin, French, and English. Went through with a knife or a scissors and cut out the parts that he liked most and pasted in to a fifth volume. He created his own Bible. You know he cut out Miracles. He cut out most of what we — the Christmas story. He cut out most of the Easter story. Resurrection is gone. But it is not an antireligious book. It’s Jefferson’s passion for Jesus, and his need to rescue and resuscitate Jesus is really palpable.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, I learned from your writing that he actually kept his Bible project secret. I hadn’t known that. That surprised me a little bit. Is that because — because he had been criticized so much already?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah, what few writings he had done on religion were used against him in the 1800 election and in other political context. He had said that it doesn’t pick his pocket or break his leg if someone believes in 20 Gods or one God. And his opponents, John Adams and the Federalists, basically used that to argue that he was an atheist and that he was going to destroy religion in America, just like his buddies in France had. And he was attacked on this all the time. And, you know, in a way Jefferson theologically really was a heretic, and he wanted a country where people like him could be free to have the viewpoints he did. And it’s sort of sad when you think about it that Jefferson believed that he was living in a land at that time where he actually couldn’t be public about what he really believed.
MS. TIPPETT: In our — in our culture wars, again, so the context in which we tend to think and to even analyze these people, we think of faith and reason as being on two sides of any issue — that they are always going to produce different arguments.
MR. WALDMAN: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that one thing that you point out when you tell the whole story in all its mess and richness, that the Founders didn’t see the languages of reason and faith as contradictory; they were working with both of them at the same time.
MR. WALDMAN: Yes, that’s very important. The Founders — if you look at Jefferson, in particular, who elevated reason above all other functions. And we tend to think of that as meaning, well then he was sort of a secularist. And he did elevate reason, but he believed that reason would lead you to believe in God. That, as he said, “the mind was the only oracle that heaven gave us.” And that if you look at nature and you look at the stars and you look at the plants — and Jefferson was a scientist — that that gave him proof of God’s existence. And in fact a lot of the people who were enlightenment thinkers were controversial and opposed by the church establishment because they did not take the Bible literally. But they were theists. They did believe in God.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about the notion of divine providence, which is a theme that runs through statements and speeches, including political speeches, through the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Constitution. I mean, as you read all of that, as you read the historical context, did you feel that that echoes powerfully in our own sense of this country? And also, is there any contradiction or disjunction between the way we internalize that now and the way somebody like George Washington internalized it?
MR. WALDMAN: Mm-hmm. Well, first I would say is that you know there was a lot of controversy about whether George Bush used too much religious rhetoric during his presidency. And all I can say is if you look back at George Washington’s presidency, he makes George Bush look like, you know, a secular, humanist, ACLU board member.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. WALDMAN: You know George Washington and the other Founders, but particularly Washington invoked God’s favor and providence repeatedly. He did it as head of the Continental Army, and he did it as president. There was one really big difference though in the way they talked about divine providence and the way it often is talked about now. Now when we talk about God bless America, there is this sense that we are inherently worthy of God’s support just by being Americans. There was a little bit of a different attitude then, which was they certainly felt that the experiment and the adventure that Americans were embarking upon was noble and worthy of God’s support, but they had a constant attention to the idea that they had better keep proving themselves to be worthy of God’s support. And, you know, Washington became very concerned that the soldiers were so profane and cursing and drinking that it was going to alienate God and that God would no longer support them in the battlefield. And John Adams actually had a moment of deep despair where he thought, you know, we’re just so corrupt and selfish that probably God’s just going to let us loose to teach us a lesson. And, you know, we’ll come back later after we’ve purged ourselves of these sins.
So the early proclamations for prayer that the Continental Congress offered and President Washington offered always had two parts. One was asking God for his support and praising God for his support. The other part was confession. It was confessing our sins as colonists and pledging to improve ourselves in order to be worthy of God’s support.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and Beliefnet editor and chief Steven Waldman. In his book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, he writes this: “Is it therefore useless to study the Founding Fathers? Not at all if we know how to use them properly. It’s time we stopped using the Founders as historical conversation stoppers, as in I’m right and you can tell, because the Founding Fathers agree with me. Instead, we must pick up the argument that they began and do as they instructed — use our reason to determine our views. The mind, as Jefferson reminded us, is the only oracle God gave us. Jefferson wanted people less dependant on the Bible. I would extend the idea,” Waldman writes, “and urge us to be less dependant on Jefferson. Many modern church-state questions fall into a Constitutional gray zone, and squinting at the founding documents with greater intensity will not change that. We need to ask a different question —not Are these practices Constitutional, but Are they wise?”
During our conversation, Steven Waldman regaled me with many more stories about Jefferson, Madison, and even Ben Franklin, whose own spiritual journey included a foray into polytheism. You can hear these stories by downloading a free MP3 of our complete unedited conversation through our Web site, e-mail newsletter, or podcast. And over the next few months, we’ll be exploring the spiritual and moral aspects of the economic downturn. On our staff blog, SOF Observed, we’re beginning this conversation. We’re looking for fresh thinking and language for talking about what has happened and why, not just in terms of financial tools and strategies but in terms of personal conscience and values. Find a link on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, how a more nuanced understanding of the early U.S. history with religion and state might provide a more generous frame of reference for current U.S. politics and approaches to developing democracies around the world. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Liberating the Founders.” As Americans elect their 44th president, we’re revisiting my conversation from earlier this year, with Steven Waldman, about Americans understanding of the founding fathers and the initial evolution of the separation of church and state. Waldman is a political journalist who founded and runs Beliefnet, one of the Internet’s largest multifaith sites on religion and spirituality. And he recently completed a study of religion, politics, and the meaning of religious freedom in the early American republic.
MS. TIPPETT: As I read your account — in that first 150 years, as you describe, there were people hanged on the Boston Common. There was persecution and violence. And it makes me think of conversations I’ve had with Muslims these past few years, who experience themselves in their countries to be engaged in an internal crisis that may take some time being resolved. And how little perspective we in the United States, who — where we talk about being out there to encourage and create and support democracy, but we don’t seem to have much of a memory of how, how very difficult it in fact was. That it was a matter of 150 years when — and there was still real violence and religious persecution, sectarian violence, even in our experiment, which has ended up in a good place. I don’t know, did you think about that when you were looking at this history?
MR. WALDMAN: Yeah, we got a lot wrong before we started to get things right. And it really was as a result of many years of kind of botched experiments and horrible persecution that we collectively started to learn another way. And the Founders deserve an enormous amount of credit, because they did not continue with the history of their fathers and grandfathers. They actually looked at history and decided to take a different course. It didn’t have to be that way. So they had the wisdom to look at what had happened and chart a different course. But even at that point, it’s not as if, you know, it went straight from James Madison’s pen right to the National Archives. You should remember that up until 1962, we had state-written prayers in schools. Not moments of reflection or moments of silence but a prayer, written by the state, read in school, up until 1962. There was a long process of taking these ideas and gradually seeing them permeate American culture.
MS. TIPPETT: And I mean even on a more dramatic level, I mean, I look at — it was not as though on July 5, 1776, established churches ceased to be in the United States, right? I mean when was the last disestablishment 1833? Something like that?
MR. WALDMAN: In Massachusetts, right.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: And it was an amazing period, the period from 1776 to around 1833, when the nation was kind of throwing off the old way without quite knowing yet what the new way was. And it was a state-by-state battle. And several states didn’t change until, you know, deep into the 1830s. Then you had the Civil War.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALDMAN: Because remember even past 1833, even though you no longer had establishments — formal establishments — you still had all sorts of religious discrimination in the states. And the First Amendment did not apply to the states. It was only after the Civil War with the 14th Amendment that you began a gradual process of applying the First Amendment to the states. So it really has taken all the way up until current day for the ideas of religious liberty that were hatched and articulated in the founding years to really fully take root.
MS. TIPPETT: Martin Marty, the great religious historian, he also I think, like you, really finds James Madison to be an inspiring figure. And he talks about how Jefferson spoke of “the wall of separation.” And that is language that — actually not until the 1940s, but by the 1940s got enshrined in Constitutional law. And we do tend to throw that phrase around: “the wall of separation.” But Marty says that Madison talked about the line between church and state and that he thinks that’s a more helpful analogy and actually more the way it has worked, and that the line — that this has always been a work in progress and continues to shift in our time. I wonder if you think about that?
MR. WALDMAN: Madison in one sense was very similar to Jefferson. He was just as strong a supporter of separation of church and state. Actually in his later years he was probably even more extreme. He said, you know, ‘When in doubt err on the side of separation.’ But he also acknowledged that there were gray areas and that we we’re going to be fighting and arguing over this for a long time. And he also knew that a lot of this his generation had kicked on down the road to the next generation. So in that sense he wouldn’t be surprised that we are arguing about this so much.
I do sometimes look at these debates that — go back and read the debates over the First Amendment and they’re changing the words, and they’re changing it from establishment of religion to a national establishment of religion and, you know, they’re fighting over these little words. And you want to at some point reach back in time and just kind of slap Madison in the face and say — gently because he was a frail man, but still you want to shake him and say, ‘Don’t you realize what trouble you’re making for us? Can’t you be much clearer about this? We’re going to have 200 years of fights over this …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALDMAN: … could you please be more clear?’ And of course the answer to that is that he was in a political process, and he wasn’t just writing a document, he was counting votes.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, just as we are.
MR. WALDMAN: Just as we are. It was a political process. And so he would probably say, ‘Yeah, I’d love to help you on that, but I don’t have the votes for that. This is what I have the votes for and this is what we can get right now. So sorry, but this is going to be your responsibility to fight for and define religious freedom, not just mine.’
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and author Steven Waldman. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Liberating the Founders,” reflecting on the perspective Steven Waldman has gained on contemporary politics through researching his book Founding Faith, on the spiritual lives of the U.S. Founding Fathers and how that shaped their varied approaches to religious liberty.
MR. WALDMAN: One thing that researching this book did for me is completely change the way I view the religious right and the Evangelical approach to politics right now. As you know, it’s a really interesting moment right now, and Evangelicals are reconsidering what the proper role of religion and politics is. I think one of the elements that they ought to consider as part of this discussion is their own history. And that if they look back at the voices of Evangelicals of the past: Isaac Backus and John Leland and other important founding fathers. These are Baptist preachers, who had tremendous influence on Jefferson and Madison and others. And you look back and you read what they say — if they were sitting around in the Christian Coalition boardroom helping to decide what the agenda of the religious right would be, they would say, ‘Look, we agree with you about the utter importance of religion. And we agree with you about the absolute necessity of strong moral values, because if we don’t have that, God is going to turn his back on us. But we believe that the best way to have a vibrant Christianity is having more separation of church and state.’
And interestingly one of the reasons that Madison, in later years, gave for criticizing George Washington’s speeches was he said, you know, George Washington put too much religion in his speeches. And the problem with that is not that it’s going to turn people against George Washington, it’s that it’s going to turn people against religion. And people are going to look at his invocations of God as being political, because it’s in a political …
MS. TIPPETT: Because then it gets locked into partisan dynamics?
MR. WALDMAN: Right. So if you’re an opponent of Washington and you’re opposing what he said or opposing his speech, you start to become annoyed or antagonistic to the religious rhetoric itself. And what we are seeing now is polling data that says that one of the effects of the dominance of religious conservatives in the last 20 years is that it’s soured a generation, not on politics, it’s soured them on Christianity. That’s the big issue that religious leaders have to grapple with right now.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’re really saying that James Madison, here again, would feel that he had been vindicated; that’s what he saw would happen.
MR. WALDMAN: Can you tell I’m a — I’ve become a James Madison man. You know, I feel like, you know, obviously this is — religious freedom is clearly a group effort, but that Madison, I really believe, is the one who brought it all together and created the real wise philosophy that gave us this idea of religious freedom, and — or what I call the “founding faith.” And that is specifically religious liberty geared toward promoting religion by leaving it alone. That’s really the key thing.
MS. TIPPETT: And which also turned out to make for good government, I think you are saying. I mean it was good for both sides of the equation.
MR. WALDMAN: I — I think so.
MS. TIPPETT: And OK, so what do you most wish the next president understood that you’ve come to understand — that you didn’t learn in your great American education about this balancing act between religion and state?
MR. WALDMAN: I would love it if the next president understood that someone’s view on separation of church and state does not necessarily describe their personal faith. What I mean by that is that we’ve come to think that if you support separation of church and state, you must be secular. Or that if you oppose separation of church and state, that means you’re more religious. And from the Founders’ perspective, that was a very odd notion. That would be viewed as a complete non sequitur.
The other thing that I wish the next president would understand is that both sides in the culture wars have gotten parts of this right and parts of it wrong. None of us have standing to claim that the opponents in the culture war are dumb and immoral and don’t understand the Founding Fathers. Because in fact the Founding Fathers disagreed with each other, and some of them would agree with the more conservative approach right now, some of them would agree with the more liberal approach right now. And if the Founders themselves couldn’t agree with each other on this, then we should all cut each other some slack and come to understand that these are important issues, these are difficult issues, but they are gray areas by design, and that we should try to reason through them together without demonizing the people on the other side of the table.
MS. TIPPETT: Journalist and author Steven Waldman.
MS. TIPPETT: I think I want to end by asking you about the story you tell at the very beginning of your book, which is the story of cheese, a gift of cheese.
MR. WALDMAN: The mammoth cheese.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, why did you take that after all you did at the beginning of your story?
MR. WALDMAN: It’s just an amazing scene. You have Thomas Jefferson, tall, magisterial, standing there in a black coat at the doorway of the new presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. It’s New Year’s Day 1802. He’s standing there looking out at this sight. And what is the sight? The sight is horses pulling a dray with this enormous cheese — 1, 235 pounds of cheese, made by 900 cows. I mean, that’s hard — that part I really have a hard time getting my head around.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALDMAN: Nine hundred cows worked together to create this cheese for Thomas Jefferson. It was four feet in diameter and 17 inches high — and in addition to this being a big cheese, it is a really truly eloquent cheese, because on the side it says, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALDMAN: And then, you think some more, like, who on earth gave Thomas Jefferson a cheese of this size? Why did they go to the trouble to get these poor cows to make this one cheese for Thomas Jefferson? And the interesting thing is that it was the Evangelical Christians — John Leland, the Baptist —that made this cheese as a gift for Thomas Jefferson. And the Evangelicals gave this gift to Jefferson not in spite of Jefferson’s support of separation of church and state, but because of his separation of church and state views. They believed that he was one of their great heroes, because Jefferson’s approach to religious liberty, which really did call for a strict separation, was going to be the approach that led Evangelical Christians and Baptists to have the most freedom to worship as they saw fit. And it was going to lead to a religious flourishing in America.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think some people would respond to that, and I think this was part of the impulse in the 1980s that led to the Moral Majority. Some people would say, but in our time — well in the late 20th century religion, was removed so extremely from the public square, it was so compartmentalized, so sidelined that that was no longer appropriate and that there was a need for a kind of counter-response and a different position on the part of deeply religious people. What’s your response to that? You and on behalf of James Madison.
MR. WALDMAN: Most of the Founding Fathers would say that the Moral Majority was probably right about that — that it’s perfectly fine to have more infusions of religious rhetoric and language and certainly invocations of God and an awareness of God’s desires for America, that there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that was in the greatest tradition of early American history. And they probably would look at some of the fights and thought well it’s perfectly fine to have God invoked in service of America’s goals and dreams.
I think the mistake in that is thinking that God would care — that the most important thing for religious vibrancy is whether or not some politician mentions God in his speech. I don’t think there is harm in a politician mentioning God in his speech, I just don’t really get the idea that it is really important to how most Americans actually practice their faith and determine whether they are good Christians or good Jews or good Muslims. So I end up with a position that I guess is a little bit idiosyncratic, which is that a lot of this stuff ought to be allowed, but that we shouldn’t be fighting about it so much and that we should be really placing less importance on whether or not religion is invoked in the public square.
MS. TIPPETT: And what should we be placing importance on?
MR. WALDMAN: We should be placing importance on living a good life according to the dictates of our faith. The Founders would say that’s the most important determinant of religious success — is whether or not religion makes you a good person. And for the most part, despite the fact that we have all these debates over the war on Christmas and there’s lawsuits and there’s, you know, fights on TV. You know, for most Americans, the question of the strength of their faith is not actually determined by Bill O’Reilly or the ACLU. It’s determined by whether they treat their neighbors well and whether their prayers are heartfelt and whether they lead a good life and follow the dictates of their faith.
MS. TIPPETT: Steven Waldman is editor in chief, president, and co-founder of Beliefnet.com. In closing, here’s a passage from his book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
He writes, “Freedom of conscience means not only the freedom to believe, but also the freedom to change — not only the right to practice one faith, but also the right to a spiritual journey. The Founders didn’t just champion religious freedom — they used it. Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison never stopped examining — passionately, combatively, wisely — life’s deepest questions. Each journey was distinctive, but they ended up in similar places, still deeply spiritual, but with an ever-shortening list of required religious creeds.”
“Just a few months before his death, Washington noted that ‘the ways of Providence are inscrutable and cannot be scanned by shortsighted man, whose duty is submission.’ The most direct end-of-life summary of his spiritual approach came in a letter he wrote on Christmas 1795, four years before his death. ‘In politics as in religion,’ he wrote, ‘my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves and to exact it from others, meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved. If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.'”
From Steven Waldman’s book Founding Faith.
To make this an hour of radio, we had to cut some fascinating stories from my interview with Steven Waldman about the Founding Fathers and their intolerance of certain religions, including Roman Catholicism. Download an MP3 of that complete unedited conversation as well as this produced program for free — speakingoffaith.org.
And in the coming weeks and months through our staff blog, SOF Observed, my producers and I are exploring questions that have come up for us about the current economic downturn. We’d like to hear your thoughts on how and why this is a moral or spiritual crisis as well. What resources do you bring to making since of it? And what kind of wisdom and leadership are you looking for in your immediate world at this time? We’ll be posing these questions as well to wise thinkers in the realm of business, education, philosophy, science, and religion. Their reflections along with yours will be on our blog. Find a link to it on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.