Steven Waldman

Ok, David, you can keep your job. That was an awfully nice plug for my book.
I particularly liked the focus that David placed on my provocative notion that 18th century evangelicals might accuse 21st century evangelicals of lacking confidence in their own faith.
This leads me to a broader point that ought to delight conservatives: the Founders applied a strong free-market prism to religion.
“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. “And when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil powers, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of it’s being a bad one.” In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson made the same point: “It is error alone which needs the support of gov’t. Truth can stand by itself.” During the fight in Virginia over whether to use taxpayer money to subsidize the churches, a Presbyterian petition opposing the idea predicted that such subsidies would lead to a colony “swarming with Fools, Sots and Gamblers.” (That’s the preachers, not the congregants).
The Founders and the other advocates of religious liberty back then seemed more confident in the ultimate power of their religion to win followers than some religious leaders do now. In arguing against the plan to subsidize Virginia’s churches, Madison accused the Anglican church leaders of “an ignoble and unchristian timidity.” John Adams even extended the principle to non-Christian religions, suggesting that we could all benefit from exposure to the sacred texts of the “Hindoos” and “Persians.” “Men ought (after they have examined with unbiased judgments every system of religion, and chosen one system, on their own authority, for themselves), to avow their opinions and defend them with boldness,” he wrote in his diary in 1756.
What does this mean in terms of modern church-state fights? I don’t know whether Baptist leaders like Isaac Backus or John Leland would have wanted prayer in public schools or not, but I imagine they would be saddened by the emphasis on that cause placed by many of today’s religious conservatives. I can hear Backus shout: How tepid is your faith if you think it can be easily shaken without constant reinforcement by a government-run school! How ineffective must be the churches – and parents — if you rely on the public schools as the only way to keep your children away from depravity! Crutches are for the weak or ill. Backus and Leland would exhort: God does not need the support of government to prevail.
In old age, Madison was asked to assess whether this radical new approach to religious freedom had worked – not merely because there was newfound security of religious minorities but because the quality of religion had improved. “The number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State,” he wrote. I suspect that the current political lineup over separation of church and state might puzzle a good free-market man like Madison.

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