Founding Faith



Steven Waldman, the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, has a new book, Founding Faith, which discusses public life and faith at the beginning of our Republic. Jon Meacham finds Waldman’s discussion on John Madison of particular interest:

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. “As a child, James Madison needed only to look across the dinner table to see the Anglican establishment,” writes Waldman, the editor in chief of Beliefnet and a former NEWSWEEK colleague. Madison’s father, James Sr., was a vestry-man of Brick Church in Orange County, Va. “The church lay leaders (the vestry) had not only religious powers but also the authority to collect taxes and enforce moral laws,” Waldman writes. “It was they who would declare punishments for those who rode on horseback on the Sabbath or drank too much or cursed.”

A child of the established church, of a world in which one’s civil and political rights were linked to one’s religious observances and professions, Madison was deeply affected by what he called the “diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution” at work in his native county in the early and mid-1770s. Dissenters—Baptists in those days were dissenters—were being jailed, beaten and harassed (one preacher was nearly drowned by a mob in a mud puddle) by the Anglican establishment, and Madison was horrified. “I must beg you to pity me,” he wrote a friend, “and pray for liberty of conscience to all.” Madison ultimately became a kind of Adam Smith of church and state: he believed that the marketplace, if left to its own devices without government interference, would produce stronger religious belief, not weaker.

He was right: once the federal government declined to establish a church and the states moved to disestablish (Massachusetts was the last, in 1833), religious belief grew. “No doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change,” Madison wrote. “This proves rather more … that the law is not necessary to the support of religion.”

In addition to the discussion of Madison, Meacham gives the book high marks:

“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. Along the way he does justice not only to Madison but to John Leland and Isaac Backus, two Baptists who fought for the separation of church and state on the grounds, to borrow a phrase of Roger Williams, that the “wilderness of the world” was bad for the “garden of Christ’s church.”

Read it all here.

Michael Dirda has a review of the book in the Washington Post Book World here.

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