This sounds like a very good book

Over at National Review, Kathryn Lopez interviews Steven Waldman, who is an editor at, and who just wrote a new book: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. In it, he carefully examines the way in which the Founders envisioned faith playing out in America, and the way in which people on both sides of the political divide have perverted their views. Waldman, in the interview, sounds like a cheerful, knowledgeable pragmatist, so I can imagine that the book is interesting to read. I especially like his “choose your battles” philosophy, which sounds like an attitude the Founders would espouse:

Lopez: You write, “a Christian who is not allowed to run a Bible study group on public school property is still allowed to worship in church, at home, in the car, on the street, at a rock concert, plugged into an iPod, or surfing on the Internet.” So should we tell the kid with the Bible study group to suck it up?

Waldman: I tend to think holding a Bible Study in a school is Constitutional but I’m not sure it’s an important battle for religious people to fight. The key is that the Bible study group actually happens. So if having it on school property is really the only way it’s going to occur, then they should fight it. If it’s easy enough to hold it somewhere else, they should do that. My concern is that we focus so much on getting religion into the public square that we start to think that the public square is essential to our spiritual lives. It’s not.

Where I tend to come down on the gray area cases is that some of them are Constitutionally permissible — but unwise. Just because something is allowed doesn’t make it a good idea. If religion can happen without government’s involvement, that’s preferable.

To be honest, some of my point here is simply that we should have a sense of perspective. If the Founders were here and heard about someone not being allowed to have a Bible study on public school property, I think some would side with ACLU (I’m guessing Madison and Jefferson) and some would side with the kid (probably Washington and Adams). But mostly they’d say: wow, you folks have way more religious freedom than we did, and way more than we thought you would. Congratulations! Perhaps we should just have a once-a-year holiday where we put our lawsuits aside and celebrate the great success of religious freedom. We can go back to suing each other the next day.

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  • rockdalian

    I may be in error, but I thought the Bible clubs were, in part, an alternative to the gay/lesbian clubs that saturate our schools.
    I wonder what the founders would think about that.

  • Bookworm

    They might think that schools should spend less time on “clubs,” and more time on basic education.

  • jj

    Hmmmmm…. I suspect you may be wrong about Adams; I think he’d be with Jefferson. The fact that the USA was not founded as a Christian nation was stated quite early in the terms of a treaty with Tripoli, which was drafted in 1796 when Washington was Prez,and signed in 1797 by Adams when he was. It states, sentence number 1:

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen…”

    (This was,of course, before the Musselmen drove planes into the WTC, and decided that no matter how tolerant of their BS the rest of the world was going to be, “tolerant” would not at any time be descriptive of them.)

    A pretty clear statement of purpose. Jefferson was an outright scoffer at Christianity, (Christopher Hitchens in his biography: “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America” quotes Jefferson, particularly his letters his nephew Peter Carr , to the effect that he was an outright atheist.) Adams was probably not that; but one may be forgiven for wondering a bit where he stood, based on preserved correspondence. He delivered himself of one splendid tirade against Christianity as follows:

    “As I understand the Christian religion,” (which locution right there might make you believe he didn’t regard himself as one), “it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, and legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”

    In a note to Jefferson: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

    Jefferson, of course, was likely (except for Madison, who was purely an atheist) the toughest of our “religiously motivated” forefathers. He once wrote back to Adams:

    “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

    This may be the driving force behind our unique (at the time) religious freedom: because the guys who gave it to us didn’t believe in ANY of it!