About 'Founding Faith'

The controversial new book about the Founding Fathers and the birth of religious freedom


Founding Faith book cover

"There is a fierce custody battle going on out there for ownership of the Founding Fathers. Founding Faith strikes me as a major contribution to that debate, a sensible and sophisticated argument that the Founders' religious convictions defy our current categories.

If asked to recommend the best book on this controversial topic, I would now choose Founding Faith."
—Joseph Ellis, author of American Creation

"As we wrestle with the role of religion in our society and the world, it's useful to understand the great gift of our Founders. They were able to balance their religious beliefs with the virtue of tolerance necessary for a pluralistic society. Steven Waldman does a great job describing the nuances of their beliefs and the balances they struck, thus rescuing the Founders from those on both sides who would oversimplify their ideas."
—Walter Isaacson, president of The Aspen Institute, and author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

"Steven Waldman recovers [the founders'] true beliefs with an insightful and truly original argument. It will change the way you think about the separation of church and state."
—George Stephanopoulos, chief Washington correspondent, ABC News, and anchor of "This Week"

"An unusually well-balanced book on an controversial subject. Not every reader will agree with Waldman that, of the founding fathers, James Madison's conclusions about religion and society were best. But all should be grateful for the way Waldman replaces myths with facts, clarifies the complexity in making the founders speak to present-day problems, and allows the founders who differed with Madison a full and sympathetic hearing. An exceptionally fair, well-researched, and insightful book."
—Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame, author of America's God

"Steve Waldman makes the strong case that the culture wars have distorted how and why we have religious freedom in America. Americans can be inspired by this story--the extraordinary birth-story of freedom of religion."
—William J. Bennett, author of America: The Last Best Hope

"This is a history every American should know, and Waldman masterfully tells it."
Jim Wallis, author of The Great Awakening


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.

Various American evangelicals have claimed the founding fathers as believing and practicing Protestants who intended America to be a Christian nation. Secularists, on the other hand, see in the same historical record evidence that the founders were often Deists at best. Both views are grossly oversimplified, argues Waldman, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com. In this engaging, well-researched study, Waldman focuses on the five founding fathers who had the most influence on religion's role in the state—Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Madison—and untangles their complex legacy.

They were certainly diverse in religiosity, with Jefferson a self-diagnosed heretic, for instance, and Washington a churchgoing Anglican who was silent on points of doctrine and refrained from taking communion. All, however, were committed to the creation of religious freedom in the new nation. Waldman deserves kudos for systematically debunking popular myths: America was not primarily settled by people seeking religious freedom; the separation of church and state did not result from the activism of secularists, but, paradoxically, from the efforts of 18th-century evangelicals; and the American Revolution was as much a reaction against European theocracy as a struggle for economic or political freedom.

Waldman produces a thoughtful and remarkably balanced account of religion in early America.


The culture wars have distorted the dramatic story of how Americans came to worship freely.  Most citizens have come to believe that America was settled as either a bastion of religious freedom or a "Christian Nation,"  that the Founding Fathers were either secular people on the one hand or devout Christians on the other, and that the First Amendment was designed to boldly separate church and state.

Wrong on all counts, argues Beliefnet.com Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman.  With refreshing objectivity, Waldman narrates the real story of how our nation's founders forged a new approach to religious liberty, a revolutionary formula that promoted faith…by leaving it alone.

This fast paced narrative begins with earlier settlers' stunningly unsuccessful efforts to create a Christian paradise, and ends with the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, when the men who had devised the lofty principles of church and state struggled to practice what they'd preached.  We see how religion helped cause, and fuel, the Revolutionary War, and how the surprising alliance between enlightenment philosophers like Jefferson and Madison and evangelical Christians resulted in separation of church and state.

As the drama unfolds, Founding Faith vividly describes the religious development of five Founders. Benjamin Franklin melded the morality-focused Puritan theology of his youth and the reason-based enlightenment philosophy of his adulthood.  John Adams' pungent views on religion – hatred of the Church of England and Roman Catholics – stoked his revolutionary fervor and shaped his political strategy. George Washington came to view religious tolerance as a military necessity. Thomas Jefferson pursued a dramatic quest to "rescue" Jesus in part by editing the Bible.  Finally, it was James Madison -- the tactical leader of the battle for religious freedom – who crafted an integrated vision of how to both prevent tyranny and encourage religious vibrancy.

There is an ongoing spiritual custody battle over the Founding Fathers and the role of religion in America today.  Waldman provocatively argues that neither liberals nor conservatives have accurately depicted the true origins of the First Amendment. He sets the record straight, revealing the real history of religious freedom to be dramatic, unexpected, paradoxical, and inspiring.


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