Book Review: Founding Faith, by Steven Waldman

A book review of Founding Faith (subtitle: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America) by Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of


In Founding Faith, Steven Waldman sets out to destroy a few myths regarding the beginning of America’s principles of religious freedom. Waldman writes “The culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.”

Waldman’s book can be summarized in his two main arguments, both of which contradict the prevailing views of the ultra-conservative right and the cultural left. First, America was not created specifically as a Christian state, but rather as a place where Christian groups could thrive. Second, America’s Founding Fathers did not desire religious freedom simply because they were all Deists. He tackles these issues by focusing on five Founding Fathers – Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – and Waldman uses the writings of these men as his primary source material.

Waldman points out that many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they could show that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state. He cites Jerry Falwell, who wrote that “any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation.”

Waldman agrees that the 13 colonies were Christian, but many only sought to establish their own religion. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not interested in tolerating any other religion. Maryland, founded as a Catholic refuge, became by 1681 a primarily Protestant colony. The Protestants took control of the government and established the Church of England using taxes to support churches and clergy. Virginia did the same.

As far as the view that the Founding Fathers were Deists who wanted religious freedom, Waldman notes that few of them were real Deists, those who believe that “God created the laws of nature and then receded from action” (p. 192). He says that most of the Founders disagreed with the second part of that statement. Many were orthodox Christians.

The Faith of the Founders

The first chapters of the book discuss the principal faiths of Colonial America – the Puritans, the Anglicans, the Quakers and the Baptists – but the heart of the book is the faith of the key founders. Waldman thought to show how their spiritual journeys might have influenced their ideas about religious freedom. Franklin, who was raised as a Puritan, developed a somewhat hybrid philosophy based on reason. He wanted a society that was “religiously dynamic” and tolerant of other religions. He feared a government dominated by any religious faction.

Adams was somewhat of a Unitarian, believing that “Christianity was based on a revelation from God, but that the true parts had been mixed with many fables and legends. (p. 35)

There were other assertions about the Founding Fathers that Waldman sought to clarify. One was that the Founding Fathers were serious Christians. Both Jefferson and Franklin rejected the divinity of Jesus and Franklin, Jefferson and Adams abhorred the Calvinist idea that salvation was pre-determined. Madison and Washington never spoke of Jesus as divine.

Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin’s convictions were shaped early on in his childhood. Ben grew up in a Puritan home in which his father’s role in the church “was to enforce Sunday attendance, and watch out for nightwalkers, tipplers, Sabbath breakers….or whatever else tending toward debauchery, irreligion, profaneness and atheism” (p.18). The idea that virtues lead to a life of salvation surrounded Ben Franklin. The “one sword” concept also was evident in his rearing. While Ben was able to embrace the moral codes that his families Puritanism taught he was not able to embrace their exclusivity. “Ben was like a child who both respects the integrity and hates the narrow-mindedness of his stodgy parents” (p.18). This appreciation for the integrity taught by the Puritans deepened as Ben listened to the teachings of Cotton Mathers. “He became intrigued by Cotton Mather’s emphasis on personal virtue who laid out a series of moral rules that would influence Franklin” (p.19). Ben was definitely heavily influenced by the idea of a works based salvation. Ben’s unwillingness to be narrow minded attracted him to Deism while working in his brother’s workshop “he was exposed to all manner of religious writings some which attacked Deism. Franklin embraced Deism who concluded that Deist principles were much stronger than the Refutations” (p.19).

Ben at age 22 proclaims his full theology saying that there was one supreme being, author and father of the gods themselves. Franklin believed that the supreme god had created many gods and that the god of our solar system cares for us and pays attention to us. He believed that humans owed the god of this solar system something and the best thing we could was to live virtuously. Ben did not embrace the idea of original sin and felt that man could reform themselves. Influenced by Cotton Mathers, Ben wrote a list of virtues that he would practice daily and assess at the end of the day. Ben liked the idea of religion but only in his customized version. “His true faith was religious pluralism he wanted a society that was religiously dynamic and relentlessly accepting of differences” (p. 24). The rise and fall of the Quakers impacted Franklin’s views on Religion and government. While Franklin admired the Quakers in Pennsylvania for their tolerance of different religions and commitment to virtuous living he did not agree with their pacifism that lead to their downfall. “Franklin could not help but observe that any government dominated by a particular religion faction even one of tolerance would struggle if it tried to legislate religious views” (p. 26). Franklin’s upbringing and later writings, which focus on virtuous living and exposure to other religions, leads Waldman to dub him the “Puritan New Ager”.

John Adams

John Adams, the son of a deacon, was in church service every Sunday. Puritanism also shaped Adams outside of the church because by law the local schools were required to teach Puritan principles. Schools taught the Westminster confession, the core of the Congregational Faith, and the Ten Commandments. Through school, church, and family Adams came to revere God and his ancestors this played an important role throughout his development.

As Adams grew he became critical of some aspects of his religion. A large influence was that of Lemuel Briant who believed that good works played a major role in determining the soul’s fate. This idea that individual behavior could affect salvation split his town. Also around this time Adams was studying religion and philosophy. He also listened to enlightenment theists like John Locke who wanted to apply reason to faith in order to enhance it. Adams believed that since God created the laws of the universe, the scientific study of nature would help us understand His mind and conform to his wishes. He became convinced that while God loved a good argument, Christian leaders didn’t (p. 34).

Adams did not enjoy the hypocrisy that took place when church leaders would forgive immoral behavior when exhibited by one of their own, but would react violently if one their truths was questioned (p. 34). Adams began to reject orthodox Christian theology, like the idea of original sin and the Trinity, because he felt these ideas were illogical. Like Franklin, he was repulsed by the Protestant doctrine that salvation was determined by only faith – the acceptance of Christ as personal savior – rather than deeds. Adams eventually became a Unitarian. He did so because he called himself a Christian by placing an emphasis on Jesus’ moral teachings but rejected the offensive claims that would exclude others.

Nevertheless, Adams understood that religion held an important place in any society, and ultimately supported all Christian endeavors. He wrote, “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the blackguard Paine say what he will.” He wrote that “the best republics will be virtuous and without religion, virtue could not flourish” (p. 37). He thought religion was a perfect system to regulate morality. Adams also believed that God was actively engaged in the events of the world especially in the settlement of America. Adams also believed that God had chosen him for his political career and the presidency. Adams believed that religion had to play an important role as America became an independent republic. Although Adams later identified himself as a Unitarian, his Puritan’s roots held him in a dilemma with “the love of freedom and the love of repression” (p. 38). It was for this reason that Adams was the lone founding father that did not turn away from the idea of state-supported-religions. Adams’s Puritan background also gave him his negative attitude towards Catholicism. He viewed them as the enemy, an inferior religion, and tyrannical.

George Washington

George Washington was universally admired in the colonies for his leadership through the Revolutionary War, but he was also revolutionary in his application of religious toleration. Although not a frequent church attendee, he did own two pews in the Pohick church and served the church in some minor ways. Waldman writes, “One has the sense that were he alive today, he absolutely would head to church, unless there was a really good football game on.” (p. 58) He was “always serious and attentive” while at church. James Madison thought Washington was indeed spiritual but not interested in the complicated theological particulars of Christianity. Yet, he admonished the Indian chiefs he interacted with to follow “the religion of Jesus Christ.” Washington was also a Mason, a group that practiced broad religious tolerance.

While Washington saw that religious toleration was a virtue, he recognized the value of toleration pragmatically in the Revolution. Washington completely rejected the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeated through the colonies. He realized that unless he could render Canada a non-threat, he would be incapable of protecting America from a northern attack. Furthermore, America needed to win France as an ally. Thus, a critical lesson was learned and acted upon – one could either practice toleration and have liberty or reject toleration and live in tyranny. During the war, Washington displayed his dependence on providence. He believed that they could win only if God was on their side. This sense of “holy war” he communicated to the troops was a great motivating factor as well.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, had perhaps the most complex religious views of the Founding Fathers, and many scholars consider him the nation’s principal deist. Waldman titles him “the Pious Infidel.” Perhaps his most unconventional view was that of Scripture and revelation. He was a great admirer of Jesus, but didn’t believe him divine. He created his own Bible, specifically the four gospels, by editing out the parts that asserted Jesus’ divinity and miracles in order to create his own version. He called it The Philosophy of Jesus, which we now know as The Jefferson Bible. Jefferson believed that Jesus authored “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He wanted to separate the “diamonds” of Jesus’ thought from the “dunghill” of corruption by the Apostle Paul, by the early church, by the great Protestant reformers, and by the clergy. Yet, Jefferson believed in a providential God, so he was not a full deist. He said in his first inaugural address that we should be “acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.” (p. 81) In fact, Waldman states that he even supported a variant on intelligent design!

Jefferson believed that organized religion inevitably would oppose true freedom. In the words of Waldman, Jefferson was certain that “[the] secret to religious freedom was destroying the concept of heresy, the crime of expressing unauthorized religious thought.” (p. 73) This was quite a personal issue to him, since his views were quite unorthodox. As a result, he was quite willing to tolerate other views. “I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our god and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not the priests. I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another.” (p. 80) Jefferson considered his work in passing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to be one of the crowning achievements of his life, emphasizing how important the separation of church and state was to him.

James Madison

Waldman seems to have a particular fondness for James Madison, who fought to keep state and federal governments away from religion, having seen firsthand some religious persecution. Madison, of course, is famous for writing and leading the passage of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

He was raised as an Anglican in Virginia, but was quite the “radical pluralist” as Waldman says. Though as a child he was inundated with the establishment church, he went to the “evangelical” Christian university, the College of New Jersey (later to be known as Princeton). He did not become an evangelical, but he certainly held much respect for them. After finishing college and going back to Virginia, he saw the persecution of the Virginia Baptists by the Anglican church. Madison’s sympathetic outlook towards the Baptists led to increasingly more dislike towards the Anglican establishment, and he worked to defend the Baptists in court. This plunge into the politics of religious liberty would be continued throughout his life, and he worked tirelessly to promote liberty of conscience throughout the ratification process of the Constitution and passage of the Bill of Rights.

Surprises in Founding Faith

Many people will be surprised that Franklin and Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was divine. And apparently, so did Adams, who as a Unitarian, supported Jesus’ moral teachings rather than his bringing of salvation. Also surprising was that Franklin, like Jefferson, edited or stripped miracles from religious writings. While Jefferson created his own edited Bible, Franklin edited the Apostles Creed and rewrote the Lord’s Prayer (p. 22). A third surprise was that the Great Awakening – or maybe simply religion – was a spur to the Revolutionary War. He notes that “many founding fathers used religious language to justify rebellion and rally the people to the cause.” (p. 41)

A general theme that is quite surprising is the sense that the faith of the Founding Fathers, or at least that of the five examined in Founding Faith, is much more complex than we often care to admit. They did not have a unified outlook on religion or the separation of church and state. It is this very fact indeed that led them to restrict so profoundly the influence that the state could have upon religion and vice versa! But not only was the Founding Fathers’ outlook not unified, they had just as complex and thought through views as people today. We often take for granted that each of us is a thinking person with diverse experiences, education, and viewpoints. The same holds true for the Founding Fathers. They were not paragons of perfection chiseled in stone for us to observe and model after; they were real people who had complicated, multi-faceted existences. The attitude of many towards the Founding Fathers often neglects that humans are complex creatures and cannot be deconstructed into neatly divisible packets of legal theory, philosophy, and religion.


Founding Faith came highly recommended, and I agree that it is a book definitely worth reading and recommending to others. Waldman presents much evidence about the Founding Fathers that rarely enters the public spotlight, and that alone speaks to its value for today. The historical insight of Waldman is superb; he deftly maneuvers through mountains of information and assembles it in a very readable fashion.

However, there are a couple of points worth noting that detract from the book overall. Waldman has a very low view of the Puritans, and could probably have done a better job footnoting the studies that show how many Puritans lived peacefully with others unlike some of the more popular stereotypes. Although books could likely be written about each of the Founding Fathers, one will not learn much about the views outside of the five men highlighted in Waldman’s book. Some specific references to other works on different Founding Fathers and their religious views would help the reader not to get into a similar form of tunnel vision that Waldman wants to prevent. The Founding Fathers did not have a unified view of religion and the separation of church and state, neither does a presentation of five of their views constitute the whole as well.

An additional book to recommend, similar to Waldman’s, is Jon Meacham’s American Gospel, which details the history of religion and politics in the United States beginning with the Founding Fathers. Both Waldman and Meacham suggest the little known or hidden religious influences on those Founding Fathers.

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