Steven Waldman's "Founding Faith" -- A Book Review
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 05:08:24 AM EST
This is a somewhat expanded version of my Amazon customer review of Steven Waldman's Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.

First, here's what I like about Waldman's book.

I find his examination of the religious views of the five founders he focuses on to be among the most realistic and accurate that I've seen. I do have a few quibbles with some minor historical details, but most are not significant enough to affect my favorable opinion of this part of the book. Among other things, Waldman presents, in context and in their entirety, many of the quotes that are frequently butchered and misrepresented by the "Christian nationalists" to create a false perception of these same founders. I also find it refreshing to see "the good, the bad, and the ugly" all embraced in the chapter on the settlement and early days of the colonies.

The parts of the book regarding the role of evangelical Christians in the fight for religious liberty are interesting and well-researched. I do, however, find Waldman's assessment of religion as a motivating factor in the fight for independence to be a bit exaggerated. There is no doubt that this was a significant factor for some, but I think Waldman goes a bit too far with this at times.

What I don't like about this book is below the fold.

My main concern is that it will give the reader who is not already familiar with the misuse of history in the church/state debate the erroneous impression that the historical distortions come equally from both sides. This is simply not the case.

The historical misconceptions and misquotes used by the "secularists" can be counted on one hand, while the literally hundreds of misquotes, distortions, and outright lies used by the "Christian nationalists" fill volumes.

The Christian nationalists have large, well-funded organizations -- such as David Barton's Wallbuilders, Stephen McDowell's and Mark Beliles's Providence Foundation, and Gary DeMar's American Vision -- whose primary purpose is spreading a distorted version of American history. They produce curriculums, send speakers across the country, and host radio and television programs. They have tour groups like Spiritual Heritage Tours and American Christian Tours. Their historical lies have made it into public schools via the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools course, and even into proposed legislation like the recently introduced H. Res. 888, a resolution for the designation of an "American Religious History Week." The secularists, on the other hand, sometimes, in an article or on a website, copy one of a handful of misquotes or repeat the misconception that most of the founders were deists. There is just no comparison between the two sides in the number or level of distortions, or their intent.

There are actually only two secularist misquotes that have ever appeared with any frequency, and even these are rarely seen today as so many secularist websites have spread the word that they are inaccurate. Waldman writes the following about one of these:

"Those hoping to prove the irreligiousness of the Founders have no trouble finding ammunition from Adams. The liberal magazine The Nation and the website both homed in on this comment from Adams: 'Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.' But in typical culture-war behavior, neither the Nation or included the rest of the quote, in which Adams explained that the negative sentiment soon passed and was replaced by his realization 'Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.'"

To reinforce what I said above -- that this misquote is rarely seen anymore -- the Nation article cited by Waldman is from 2005, and no longer exists. Waldman even says in his endnote that this site was accessed in 2006.

Even the origin of this misquote can't be blamed on modern-day secularists. It actually dates to the mid-1800s. Because the first edition of Jefferson's writings was published in 1829, but none of Adams's writings until the 1850s, all anyone had for several decades was Jefferson's reply to Adams's statement. It was Jefferson who first repeated only part of the quote. In his reply, Jefferson put this in quotation marks, obviously quoting Adams, and it soon began appearing in other books. I have found at least a dozen nineteenth century and early twentieth century books that contain only the partial quote, attributing it to Adams, but citing Jefferson's letter as the source.

Ironically, while Waldman points his finger at those who quote from Adams's letter only the first sentence, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it," James H. Hutson, who assisted Waldman in the preparation of his book and is listed in his acknowledgements among "those who influenced [him] greatly," only quotes the second sentence in his highly biased, revisionism packed Religion and the Founding of the American Republic exhibit on the Library of Congress website.

According to Hutson:

"John Adams, a self-confessed 'church going animal,' grew up in the Congregational Church in Braintree, Massachusetts. By the time he wrote this letter his theological position can best be described as Unitarian. In this letter Adams tells Jefferson that 'Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.'"

Waldman also describes what he claims to be another secularist Adams misquote.

"It is well known that [Adams] wrote presciently to Abigail that July 2 ought to be 'celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,' chock full of 'games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations.' Less well known was the passage from the very same letter in which he suggested that 'it ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty' -- yes, that independence should be celebrated as a quasi-religious holiday."

Huh? The "acts of devotion to God Almighty" passage is the less well known passage? Waldman apparently hasn't read too many Christian nationalist American history books. Nearly all of them include this quote, but omit everything except that passage.

This is William Federer's version of the quote from America's God and County Encyclopedia of Quotations:

"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America, to be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival, commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty from one end of the Continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore."

And this is David Barton's version from Original Intent, complete with Barton's introduction:

"Amazingly, Adams foresaw that their move for independence on the previous day would be celebrated by future generations. Adams told Abigail that the day should be commemorated -- but only in a particular manner and with a specific spirit. He explained:

'It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.'"

The only instances I can find of "solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty" being omitted from Adams's prediction of the ways in which Independence Day might be celebrated are in articles and other items describing the typical way the holiday is now celebrated. This omission seems to be more an effort to make Adams's prediction seem more prophetic than to secularize it.

Even George W. Bush did this in his July 1, 2006 radio address, and he's certainly no secularist.

"In 1776, John Adams predicted to his wife, Abigail, that America's Independence Day would be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. He wrote that 'this anniversary should be commemorated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forever more.'

"Since then, generations of Americans have done just that. Each year we look forward to the family gatherings and the grand celebrations that take place across the Nation on the 4th of July. And amid the music and barbeques and fireworks, we give thanks for our freedom, and we honor the bravery and sacrifices of all those who have made that freedom possible."

As I said above, most of the minor historical inaccuracies in Mr. Waldman's descriptions of the founders religious views are insignificant, and don't affect the overall accuracy of his assessments. There are, however, a few that are significant because they address actions rather than opinions, and tend to perpetuate some of the Christian nationalist myths.

For example, in his chapter on Thomas Jefferson's religious views, Waldman makes the claim that Jefferson "allowed for some government support of religion." He later says of Jefferson in a section on how the founders would deal with the issue of school prayer: "Initially, he even opposed having theology taught at the University of Virginia." Initially? That implies that Jefferson changed his mind at some point. Jefferson opposed this until the day he died, as did Madison, who took over after him. No theology was taught at the university until the 1840s, after both Jefferson and Madison were dead. One of Waldman's examples Jefferson's "government support of religion" is the provision in the Kaskaskia Indian treaty for money to pay a priest and build a church. This story, a version of which is found in virtually every Christian nationalist history book, is explained in the second part of my review of Stephen Mansfield's Ten Tortured Words. Another is Jefferson's attendance at religious services in the Capitol Building, which I addressed in the third part of my Ten Tortured Words review. Waldman's incredible conclusion is that Jefferson, "despite his expansive rhetoric...was comfortable with many forms of church-state mingling."

While James H. Hutson's influence on Waldman is evident throughout his book, it is particularly noticeable in claims like the following. Comparing the post-Constitution government to the Continental Congress, Waldman claims that "the new government abandoned the practice of the Continental Congress of officially referring to the United States as a 'Christian Nation.'" Never once did the Continental Congress refer to the United States as a "Christian Nation." There is not a single instance of this phrase anywhere in the Journals of the Continental Congress.

Despite its flaws, I do recommend that people read Waldman's book. But, I also urge those who read it to do some further investigation, particularly regarding the amount of errant history coming from the Christian nationalists as opposed to the secularists. Compare David Barton's Original Intent, book, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, enough of which is freely available online for such a comparison.

of the false equivalence drawn between problems related to "secularists" and problems related to the religious right.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 11:43:01 AM EST
It really does contain some good material, but I was so annoyed as I was reading it knowing how the secularist vs. religious right comparisons would come across to anyone who was reading this as their first book on the subject. It was really weird for me not to consider a book's historical inaccuracies to be its biggest problem.

Also, my Amazon customer version of this review needs some votes to move it up to the book's main page where people will see it. Here's the link. (My review there is titled "Mixed Feelings") s/dp/1400064376/ref=pd_rhf_p_t_1

by Chris Rodda on Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 12:37:14 PM EST

and I am glad that you highlighted it.

I don't think that journalists, pundits, scholars and bloggers (not that these are mutually exclusive categories) need to be rigous about setting this stawman on fire. It is inexcusable.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 12:48:54 PM EST

I DO think that people need to be rigorous about this.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Apr 01, 2008 at 10:34:55 AM EST

Thanks for this thorough review! Very interesting.

Assigning equal blame to Christianists and Church-and-State Separatists in the debate over religion and our republic's founding puts me in mind of the "equal time" and "teach the controversy" perspectives about the science education debate concerning the teaching of crypto-Creationism and evolution.

Waldman's book sounds like it's pretty good all in all, but you bring to light some noteworthy flaws.

by IseFire on Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 09:24:32 PM EST

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