Krista's Journal: Dispelling the Myth of Uninterrupted Triumph and Goodness

October 30, 2008

I've enjoyed Steven Waldman as a journalist and commentator through the last two election seasons because he refused to tolerate or perpetuate the culture wars that embittered American politics. After the poll-driven, "moral values" debate in 2004, he took both conservatives and liberals to task for demonizing and caricaturing the other — to our collective detriment. Waldman has played a similarly countercultural role as an observer of the current election season — and its occasional revival of religion as a lightning rod for division and partisan vitriol. And this year he also published a book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. It is a fascinating retelling of the complex and diverse relationship the American founders had to religion in political life, and a reflection on how the culture wars have skewed Americans' sense of this. In the process, he says, we've diminished our capacity to understand what is really at stake in some of the most important challenges of domestic and global life. Waldman reminds us that the genius of the U.S. founders was not in getting everything right from the outset, but in learning from their mistakes, with an eye out for the missteps of their own time. The first 150 years of colonial history, as he retraces it, involved a cascade of failed experiments with official state religions. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both became champions of the separation of religion and state — albeit with very different emphases — in part through their revulsion at the intolerance and violence that marked these experiments. This is not the history that many of us learn in school. Or perhaps we simply don't internalize it in light of the genuine nobility of the grand narrative. Earlier this year at Princeton University I spoke with an undergraduate doing her senior thesis on religious liberty in the early republic. She told me of her utter astonishment at realizing that every original colony aside from Rhode Island had some form of state-sanctioned religion. The last of these — the Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts — was not disestablished until 1833. Steven Waldman had this same sense of discovery in his own research, and he dwells with some insistence — for our collective edification — on the dark side of this early history. He reminds us of the intolerance and outright violence of Virginia's Anglicans and Massachusetts' Congregationalists. He tells the story of Mary Dyer, who was hanged on the Boston Common for being Quaker. This is in the land of liberty. It is a period of American history we have sentimentalized and glossed over. The facts, as he tells them, are shocking. At the same time, he finds a way to forgive our confusion, and our gloss on history. We come by them honestly — as a direct inheritance from the founders themselves, who were equally confused, and imprecise, and muddied by the politics of their moment in time. The study Waldman has undertaken, and the perspective he offers at this moment in time, is another salutary exercise in the spiritual discipline I call "remembering forward." In the lives of nations as of individuals, seeing ourselves more realistically and less idealistically is a fundament of clear-sightedness and right action into the future. Our own history seen in the light of fact, and removed from the distorting divides of our time, could be a source of our greatest wisdom and reason precisely towards what is difficult and dangerous in the contemporary world.

Recommended Reading

Image of Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Author: Steven Waldman
Publisher: Random House (2008)
Binding: Hardcover, 304 pages

This is at once a lively and light-hearted, learned and important book.

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is founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet and the author Founding Faith.