Author Steven Waldman attempts to answer this and other questions related to America’s religious history in his new book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
Waldman sets the record straight on several issues that have been debated fiercely by those engaged in what he calls the “custody battle” over the American founding. Seventeenth-century America, he rightly argues, was not founded as a bastion of religious freedom, but as a place where religious establishments prevailed. Scholars will already know this, but it is still nice to see such a clean and direct hit on the Whiggish interpretations of the British colonies promoted by many of the so-called Christian America writers. Waldman also makes it clear that most of the Founders were not deists, especially if we define a “deist” as a person who rejects the idea that God acts in human history. Nearly all the Founders believed in providence. I am sure that Susan Jacoby and others and still others may have something to say about this, but Waldman is correct here.
It is now common for those on the right and the left to try to prove that America is or isn’t a Christian nation based on the religious beliefs of the Founders. Waldman reminds us of the logical problems with this argument. Just because one of the Founders was a Christian—or even an evangelical Christian—doesn’t mean that he was an opponent of the separation of church and state. The opposite is also true. Just because one of the Founders did not believe all the tenets of orthodox Christianity does not always mean that he rejected the idea that Christianity was good for the republic. This argument seems obvious, but it is often missing from the popular religious histories of the founding era.