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Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America Kindle Edition

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Length: 304 pages

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Various American evangelicals have claimed the founding fathers as believing and practicing Protestants who intended America to be a Christian nation. Secularists, on the other hand, see in the same historical record evidence that the founders were often Deists at best. Both views are grossly oversimplified, argues Waldman, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com. In this engaging, well-researched study, Waldman focuses on the five founding fathers who had the most influence on religion's role in the state—Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Madison—and untangles their complex legacy. They were certainly diverse in religiosity, with Jefferson a self-diagnosed heretic, for instance, and Washington a churchgoing Anglican who was silent on points of doctrine and refrained from taking communion. All, however, were committed to the creation of religious freedom in the new nation. Waldman deserves kudos for systematically debunking popular myths: America was not primarily settled by people seeking religious freedom; the separation of church and state did not result from the activism of secularists, but, paradoxically, from the efforts of 18th-century evangelicals; and the American Revolution was as much a reaction against European theocracy as a struggle for economic or political freedom. Waldman produces a thoughtful and remarkably balanced account of religion in early America. (Mar. 18)
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Review

“Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and co-founder of Beliefnet.com, a religious web site, surveys the convictions and legacy of the founders clearly and fairly, with a light touch but a careful eye.”
—New York Times Book Review

“Waldman ends by encouraging us to be like the founders. We should understand their principles, learn from their experience, then have at it ourselves. 'We must pick up the argument that they began and do as they instructed – use our reason to determine our views.' A good place to start is this entertaining, provocative book.”
—New York Times Book Review

"Steven Waldman's enlightening new book, Founding Faith, is wise and engaging on many levels, but Waldman has done a particular service in detailing Madison's role in creating a culture of religious freedom that has served America so well for so long….Founding Faith is an excellent book about an important subject: the inescapable—but manageable—intersection of religious belief and public life. With a grasp of history and an understanding of the exigencies of the moment, Waldman finds a middle ground between those who think of the Founders as apostles in powdered wigs and those who assert, equally inaccurately, that the Founders believed religion had no place in politics."
–Newsweek

"Well-wrought, well-written and well-reasoned—a welcome infusion of calm good sense into a perennially controversial and relevant subject."
–Kirkus Reviews

"Founding Faith takes up two central questions about religion in early America. First, what did such Founding Fathers as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison usually believe? And second, how did it come about that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that 'Congress shall m...

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Format: Hardcover
As someone who, for the last quarter century, has researched and written about religious sensibilities in early America, I'm always astonished at the seemingly endless battle between those who insist that the Founding Fathers were orthodox Christians who founded a Christian nation (e.g., Tim LaHaye's Faith of Our Founding Fathers) and those who just as strenuously insist that the Founding Fathers were all Enlightenment secularists who loathed religion (e.g., Isaac Kramnick's The Godless Constitution). Although I think that there's more truth in the second than the first position, both of them are distortions, attempts to squeeze complex men and a complicated religious ethos into neat, unproblematic boxes.

It's refreshing that Steven Waldman refuses to compartmentalize in this way. His Founding Faith is a finessed treatment of the various influences, religious, military, pragmatic, and political, that coalesced to form the legal and cultural traditions of church-state separation. For Waldman, diminuitive "radically pluralistic" Madison is the real hero of the story who "deserves the greatest thanks" (p. 200). But Waldman reminds readers that Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland were some of the most ardent champions of separation (unlike many of their 20th and 21th century descendants); that Thomas Jefferson, villified both during his own lifetime and afterwards as an atheist, in fact greatly admired what he took to be the ethics of Jesus; and that the first Great Awakening was a potent force in encouraging political revolution and independence.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on May 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Highly useful book on the religion of the Founding Fathers, and their intent concerning religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Founding Faith is a fair and balanced book, puncturing liberal and conservative myths about the topic with equal cheer, and more importantly, placing the discussion squarely within the historical context of what the Founders were doing and what it was possible for them to accomplish.

So were the colonies Christian? Yes, of course, and more, predominantly Protestant with considerable anti-Catholic bias. Most colonies did have an established church, mostly Anglican or Congregationalist, yet, after the revivalism of the Great Awakening period in the mid-1700s, the colonies were more religiously diverse than ever. The fear that the British Crown would force all the colonists to be Anglican was a factor in the Revolution.

Some of the factors leading the young nation into religious tolerance were pragmatic. George Washington, for example, was trying to forge a unified fighting force out of a religiously diverse group of soldiers. He had to quell the level of anti-Catholicism because he was trying to persuade the French Catholics in Canada to join in the Revolution.

Were the Founders Deists? No, they weren't, as even Jefferson and Franklin acknowledged the hand of Providence in the affairs of men. But neither were the five Founding Fathers that Waldman profiles orthodox Christians. Franklin flirted with a variety of religions, including Deism (the philosophy that God created the Universe like a watchmaker creates a watch, and then retreated from participation in his creation), but he also was was interested in the Great Awakening and thought the influence of Christianity upon the morals of people was a good one.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very special book. The author has done an utterly superb job of original research and elegant concise representation of the nuances in belief, practice, and circumstances with respect to the matter of religion as confronted by the Founding Fathers, and especially Ben Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

We learn early on that freedom of religion was originally designed to apply only at the federal level--only later, when the North pushed through the Fourteenth amendment, did this get grandfathered upon the states.

We learn throughout the book that the original evangelicals wanted separation of the church and state, and made common cause with the rationalists, both groups believing that individual liberty and freedom of personal conscience were the core values.

Midway through the book we are confronted by the author with the reality that the diversity of faiths existent today in the USA render meaningless and unachievable any thought of America being a Christian or even a Protestant nation--pluralism rules.

Religion was appreciated by the Founding Fathers for its generally good impact on civic morals. George Washington especially, in the Continental Army, demanded religious tolerance, authorized chaplains, encouraged officers and men to attend religious services, and generally communicated a sense that the American Revolution was a "holy war" with God standing firmly with the colonies against England and the Church of England.

The author provides concise but no less shocking accounts of the early religious wars in America, with torture and execution and jail being imposed on Quakers and Baptists, Protestants against Jews and Catholics.
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