The place of religion in America is a problem as old as our republic. It has been a flash point of debate between liberals and conservatives on a wide range of issues--such as aid to parochial schools, prayer at civic gatherings, nativity scenes on public property, government assistance to faith-based organizations, and many other concerns. The locus of the problem is interpreting the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment (1791), which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”
Constitutional originalists hold to a strict interpretation of this text. They contend that when the First Amendment was ratified it simply prohibited the federal government from declaring itself in support of a national religion or acting in favor of a particular faith. On the other hand, proponents of a dynamic Constitution contend that what the phrase really means is that a strict separation must be maintained between the state and all religion in any form.
In Founding Faith, Steven Waldman, editor in chief of the popular online religion journal Beliefnet.com, investigates the genesis of the Establishment Clause. He presents the religious, philosophical, and political beliefs held by the authors and promoters of the Bill of Rights when the First Amendment was drafted.
Like most writers who delve into the First Amendment, Waldman explores the thinking of the great figures behind the Constitution, in particular the “Big Five”--Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Washington--that small circle generally thought of as the key Founding Fathers. He notes a bottom-line fact: the “Big Five” were decidedly pro-religion, and not at all the vague, quasi-secular, hands-off-God deists they are often represented as being. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Washington all agreed on the importance of religion to a healthy democracy.
All to some degree believed that God intervened in the lives of men, and had chosen America for special blessing (the idea often referred to as American exceptionalism). That included Jefferson, whom Waldman presents as the least conventional of the five in his religious sensibilities. The Founders’ real concern was determining how religion could flourish best in America. Madison, whom Waldman paints as the most traditionally pious of the group, was the prime agent behind the First Amendment. He held a strong desire for a strict separation between church and state, because he believed that government presented the greatest potential obstacle to its flourishing. His view reflected his disgust with the European model of national churches, the history of which ultimately proved damaging to religion and an impediment to the freedom of conscience that was sacred to all the Founders.
But Waldman makes the important point that constitutional study has tended to focus too narrowly on the thinking of the “Big Five.” As much as Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Washington believed in God and His providential care (both for human beings and for our country) and agreed on the importance of religion in buttressing public morality, Waldman insists that their personal opinions are not the only standard by which the words of the Establishment Clause are to be understood. Indeed, to grasp fully the clause and its implications for religious freedom, it is essential to explore the views of a much wider group, including the members of the committee that drafted the Bill of Rights, as well as the congressional ratifiers.
The input and votes of all these men were vital in bringing the document to its final form and passage. And as Waldman wisely emphasizes, they all had their personal preferences regarding church-state relations, and moreover, represented states with widely divergent approaches to the concept of religious establishment. Some states, like Virginia, had prohibited funding of the Anglican Church as early as 1776, while Massachusetts continued to support the Congregationalist Church until 1833. That the First Amendment emerged from the framing process as it did reflects the fact that the Founders were, first and foremost, politicians willing and able to compromise in order to accomplish what was doable under the circumstances.
Waldman explores the ways in which the culture and denominational composition of each state, as well as the politicians’ personal beliefs, influenced how the Establishment Clause was understood. Pressure from Jefferson and Madison certainly provided encouragement to Virginia’s disestablishment law, while the views of Massachusetts’s John Adams and Fisher Ames, who considered government support for religion essential, had its effect in their state. Participation by men of such conflicting outlooks in the constitutional process argues forcefully that a narrow reading of the agreed-upon amendment is the only fair assessment that can be made. In other words, the First Amendment was intended only to prohibit a federally sponsored religion. Individual states could make their own laws.
TVD: Now, I've tended to skip books like Waldman's in favor of reading the Founders for myself, and I admit it's gratifying to independently come to many of the same conclusions as Waldman, particularly:
---on the objection to "key" Founders theses that tend to ignore or diminish the other Founders;
---that the personal opinions of these "key" Founders shouldn't be our standard to judge the First Amendment, nor were they were unanimous on things;
---that the other Founders [Ratifiers] are fully worthy of our attention;
---that even the "key" Founders are not nearly as secular or deist as "common knowledge" proclaims them to be;
---that the Bill of Rights' Establishment Clause was designed as anti-sectarian, not anti-religion;
---and the importance of federalism, which left many religious questions to the states, and that the signing of the constitution by no means ceded such jurisdiction to the federal government as many might think today.
Waldman also explicitly claims what I've only held as a suspicion: that James Madison's reticence to speak about religion came not from disbelief, but from a very humble piety. And "American exceptionalism" is a mainstream we haven't even begun to ford around here.
The second half of the book [and review] is about expansive judicial interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, where the federal government's claim to supremacy in such matters has been enforced. Certainly a worthy topic, but one presently outside the scope of this blog, for which I for one am thankful. Should others be interested in the method of working backwards from 2009 instead of forward from 1776, I recommend Jonathan Rowe's other groupblog, Positive Liberty.