(2008) is a historical non-fiction book by the American journalist Steven Waldman. Rather than embrace some of the more facile historical narratives that have emerged about the American Founding Fathers' religious views, Waldman takes a meticulously-researched approach to examining how individuals like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin truly felt about religion. In doing so, the author seeks to grasp a better understanding of the Founding Fathers' intent when crafting a blueprint for the American experiment.
Before diving into his research, the author puts forth two dominant and competing narratives about the Founders' religious views in order to debunk these narratives later. The first narrative—often embraced by the contemporary Christian right—is that the Founders were uniformly and unabashedly Christian and, therefore, established the United States to be an explicitly Christian nation. The opposing narrative is that the First Amendment—along with a few less orthodox beliefs held by various Founders—offers proof that the men who built America merely paid lip service to traditional Christianity and were in fact "deists," if not outright unbelievers. Deism is the belief that God or some other supreme force created the universe and then left it to its own devices (the Creator in this belief system is often likened to a clockmaker who sets the time and then walks away).
Both of these narratives, the author writes, are far too simplistic and ignore the vast diversity in belief systems held by the Founding Fathers. There were, Waldman admits, a great number of Founders who followed Christian orthodox pretty much to the letter, including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and John Witherspoon, who was, in fact, a Presbyterian minister. However, Benjamin Franklin, for example, experimented with a number of religions over the course of his life, even polytheism. Thomas Jefferson, despite being a strong follower of Jesus's teachings, detested Christianity and even re-edited the gospels to make them more "accurate" in his mind. John Adams was a devout Unitarian who spared little scorn when dismissing the views of other Christian sects.
Nevertheless, even though virtually all of the Founders “believed in God and that he shaped their lives and fortunes,” Waldman argues that the evidence does not support the view that they intended America to be a Christian or even monotheistic nation. If America were to be a Christian nation, the historical context of the era suggests that they would have certainly put those words into the Constitution. Instead, the Founders enshrined the idea of "freedom of religion" within the very First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This idea was later refined by statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson, whose interpretation of the First Amendment would be paraphrased as having established a "separation of church and state."
One of the biggest reasons for this emphasis on religious freedom, Waldman states, has nothing to do with various Founders' personal beliefs or lack thereof. Rather, many of the Founders, in particular, James Madison, were horrified by the religious persecution they had witnessed or heard about throughout the thirteen colonies. Madison was especially disgusted by the persecution of Baptists in his home state of Virginia, where at least fifty-six Baptist preachers were incarcerated between 1760 and 1778. As a part-time deist who railed against the establishment of religious states, Madison is often singled out by adherents to the theory that the Founders were influenced by anti-religious Enlightenment principles. Waldman’s response is that “what likely influenced [Madison] most was not ideas from Europe but persecutions in Virginia.”
Aside from Madison, Waldman is greatly interested in the somewhat beguiling case of George Washington's religious views. Both sides of the contemporary debate over America's Christian roots try to claim Washington as their own. This is because, on one hand, Washington was a member of the Freemasons, a fraternal order that professes belief in a "supreme being" that is rejected by many Orthodox Christians. Washington was careful to avoid denominational language in his writings, often referring vaguely to "providence" when other writers would use the word "God" or "Christ." On the other hand, Washington had a close relationship with the Christian church in his hometown in Virginia. Furthermore, he required that chaplains accompany all of his regiments during his tenure as commander of the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War, encouraging his soldiers to attend religious services. Waldman takes in these contradictory pieces of evidence and concludes that Washington's convictions about religious freedom likely attracted him to Freemasonry and not the other way around. In other words, Washington's religious views were too complex for either side of the debate over America's Christian identity to claim him as its own.
After examining a great deal of evidence, Waldman concludes, "the Founding Faith ... was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty — a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.”