A sophisticated discussion of the role of religion in the American Republic’s early years.
Waldman, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the religion website Beliefnet.com, offers a book sure to displease partisans on both sides of an increasingly intense debate that features candidates making obeisance to faith while anti-religious diatribes crowd the bookstore shelves. Rather than taking an “either/or” approach to the historic role of religion in the public sphere, the author argues for “both/and” thinking. Secularists and religionists alike cherry-pick the record in their respective takes on American history, he demonstrates. For example, the former neglect to note that the anti-establishment clause was intended for the federal government only and had no bearing on the states, while the latter fail to understand how deeply skeptical of religion the Founding Fathers were. Waldman traces his story from the days before the Revolution, when many colonies maintained official religions in order to keep Catholics, Baptists and other religious minorities in check. Colonies with more open policies, such as Pennsylvania, benefited economically as well as ecclesiastically by encouraging religious diversity, he argues. One of the book’s best sections shows that legislative coalitions and compromises shaped much of what is now considered sacred in the Constitution. Interspersed chapters detailing the spiritual beliefs of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison delineate each Founder’s thoughts about the role government should play in religious life and that religion should play in civic life.
Well-wrought, well-written and well-reasoned—a welcome infusion of calm good sense into a perennially controversial and relevant subject.