A conversation with Steven Waldman, founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com and author of Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (Random House, 2008). Waldman was interviewed by Krista Tippett on her radio show Speaking of Faith (American Public Media). The following is based on that interview, with additional material from Founding Faith.
You say that at the time of America’s founding, the debate over church-state separation was marked by the same kind of intolerance and violence the colonists had come to the New World to escape.
Yes. For the first 150 years of our history, almost all of the colonies had semiofficial or official state-supported religions; in New England it was the Congregational Church of the Puritans and in the Southern states it was the Church of England. The one thing all these established state churches had in common was intolerance for people who did not share their religious convictions.
To what lengths did they go to stifle individual religious freedom?
To great lengths. For instance, the treatment of Quakers in early American history was not just a case of harassment or persecution; in 17th-century New England it was a crime to be a Quaker. A Quaker who was ordered to leave Massachusetts and refused faced whipping for the first offense, an ear cut off for the second, and execution for the third. Every school child ought to know the story of Mary Dyer of Boston. This upstanding, churchgoing woman, along with some other people, started having what we would now call Bible studies at home, offering up different views than those of the established Congregational Church. At first her minister accused her of heresy. Then, when she became a Quaker, she was banished from Boston a few times, but she kept coming back because she believed in the righteousness of her cause and in the truth of her beliefs. On October 27, 1659 she and two of her Quaker friends were tried and convicted of defying an order of banishment and sentenced to death by hanging. She watched as her friends’ necks snapped; she was given a last-minute reprieve, which had been the court’s intention all along. A year later she defied the law again and was brought before the General Court, with Massachusetts Governor John Endicott as presiding judge. She was found guilty, and on June 1, 1660 she was executed by the Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts—the very government established by Puritans who had fled England to avoid religious persecution. Drummers lined the route, ready to drown out her words if she attempted to speak to the crowd.
Was this degree of persecution practiced in other colonies as well?
Baptists were persecuted throughout the colonies, but it was perhaps most intense in the part of northern Virginia that gave us James Madison, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. In Madison’s local courthouse, officials of the Anglican Church unleashed a wave of persecution against area Baptists, throwing them in jail simply for preaching their own gospel. This trampling on “liberty of conscience” had a profound impact on Madison, who later became the nation’s most zealous champion of religious freedom. And it should be emphasized that his support for the separation of church and state was to promote, not to discourage, religion. Madison articulated the philosophy of religious freedom that I call the “founding faith” of America—promoting religion by leaving it alone, resulting in religious liberty for all.
Was Madison’s intent to protect religion from government interference?
Yes, and interestingly, it was the Evangelical Christians of his day that rallied behind him most passionately in support of church-state separation. The 18th-century evangelicals were Madison’s and Jefferson’s foot soldiers in the drive for religious liberty. Of course, some of this evangelical support was practical—they aimed to stop the persecutions and break up the authority of the established churches which were preventing them from praying the way they wanted. But there was also a theology to their advocacy of church-state separation. They believed in a personal relationship with God that didn’t have to always go through intermediary institutions, namely clergy or church. And this kind of individual liberty or democratic—with a small “d”—approach to religion meshed perfectly with the revolutionary spirit of Jefferson, Madison, and other founders who were insistent in their protestations to the British Crown that the individual also has the right to liberty.
You also point out that the founding fathers didn’t see the languages of reason and faith as contradictory.
Yes. Take a look at Jefferson, who elevated reason above all other functions. We tend to think of that as meaning he was a secularist, but in fact Jefferson elevated reason because he believed that reason would lead a person to believe in God. “The mind,” he said, “was the only oracle that heaven gave us.”
George Washington also invoked God’s favor and Providence repeatedly. He did it as commander of the Continental Army, and he did it as president.
There is one significant difference, though, in the way the founding fathers talked about Divine Providence and the way it is often talked about today. Now, when the words “God bless America” are voiced, there is this sense that we are inherently worthy of God’s support just by virtue of being Americans. The founders certainly believed that the American experiment was noble and worthy of God’s support, but they felt the constant need to prove themselves as worthy of God’s grace. Washington, for example, grew concerned that his soldiers were so profane in their cursing and drinking that God would abandon them on the battlefield. So the early proclamations for prayer that the Continental Congress and President Washington offered always included two parts: one asking and praising God for His support, and the other confessing and pledging to purge themselves of their sins.
What else do we know of Washington’s take on religion and politics?
The clearest understanding of George Washington’s approach can be found in a letter he penned on Christmas 1795, just 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.”
Five years earlier, Washington made history by extending the definition of American religious legitimacy beyond Christians. For much of the previous decades, political discussion about religious toleration for all practical purposes referred solely to freedom for a variety of Protestants and, occasionally, Catholics. There was little mention—or tolerance—of non-Christians. So it was of great consequence when Washington visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island and then, in a follow-up letter, declared full religious equality for Jews: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid….”
Would you say that there was one overarching idea that animated the founding founders’ concept of religion?
I think the founders would say that the most important determinant of religious success is whether or not religion makes you a good person. And still today, for the most part, despite the fact that we have debates and lawsuits over what religious symbols are permissible in the public square, for the majority of Americans the test of one’s faith is determined by whether you treat your neighbors well, whether your prayers are heartfelt, and whether you lead a good life according to the dictates of your faith.
What do you wish the next president of the United States to understand about this balancing act between religion and state?
I would love it if the next president recognizes that someone’s view on separation of church and state does not necessarily describe his or her personal faith. Here in America we’ve come to think that if you support separation of church and state, you must be secular, and if you oppose separation of church and state, you must be religious—a very odd notion from the perspective of the founding fathers, who made no such distinction and would have viewed it as a non sequitur.
Also, I hope the next president understands that neither side in the culture wars can claim that the founding fathers are on “their side,” thus legitimizing their point of view. In fact, the founding fathers disagreed with each other, and if they were alive today, some of them would agree with the more conservative approach while others would align themselves with the more liberal approach. And if the founders themselves couldn’t agree on all this, then all of us should cut one another some slack and come to understand that these are complex issues with gray areas by design.