One of the most informative accounts of early American life comes from Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist passing through the northern colonies in the late 1740’s. Upon reaching Albany, in the colony of New York, he was struck by the friction between the townspeople and the British, whose garrison was substantive proof of their imperial rule. The inhabitants, whose dress and speech among the troops reflected British tastes, remained fiercely loyal to their Dutch roots. Although the colony had belonged to the British crown for more than fifty years, the citizens of Albany were only nominal subjects of the king: They hated the Britishwhom they regarded as an occupying forceand preferred to speak among themselves the language of their Dutch ancestors. That would seem to reinforce the notion of rebellion in its embryonic state, a people who would revolt against their perceived oppressors in less than thirty years; however, Kalm also noted that they had equal contempt for their colonial neighbors, that “Albanians” had no difficulty in bartering for silver that bore the names of their murdered New England neighbors. This small observation about America’s colonial past underscores some salient features of the American charactera keen distrust of a distant central authority and a fierce determination to retain one’s belief system. To phrase it in more basic terms, one of the difficulties that faced the post-Revolution leadership was the tension between the national government and the centrifugal effect of thirteen culturally distinct colonies.
Never was this more evident than in the issue of religion, the subject of Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. The book largely focuses upon the treatment of the issue at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 through the early nineteenth century. The structure of Waldman’s book is solid and workmanlike. He prefaces his discussion of religion in the early republic with brief profiles of the men who set the pattern for religious tolerance in the new nation, the Founding Fathers. Like a good playwright, Waldman provides a brief synopsis of each of the main characters, which functions as a kind of dramatis personae for his restaging of one of history’s key moments. While some may question the necessity of reprising such well-known careers, this approach is central to Waldman’s goal of correcting what he perceives to be current misconceptions regarding the religious views of the Founders. While evangelists often paint the Founders as extremely religious in order to advance their own agenda of employing government to promote faith, advocates of separation of church and state tend to claim that these leaders were Deistspeople who felt that God created the universe but did not intervene in human affairs. This is probably the least satisfying segment of a book that makes a profoundly original contribution to the subject of religious tolerance. It is due, in part, to the fact that a précis of any aspect of a person’s life cannot fully capture the nuances and subtle shifts of that most intimate of subjects, one’s belief system. These men led public lives, and as such even their most private correspondence would certainly have been written with a good deal of restraint. Thus, while it is instructive to learn that George Washington believed that God protected him from injury during battle, this is a common conceit among soldiers in all wars. Perhaps more telling was the fact that this Anglican “never kneeled” in church and “did not generally take communion.” These significant omissions suggest a pro forma acceptance of a public necessity rather than an affirmation of faith.
The book’s discussion of the Founders’ personal beliefs is even more problematic when it deals with Benjamin Franklin. Waldman is on solid ground when describing Franklin’s seismic shift away from the harsh Calvinism of his native Boston, a Protestant sect that affirmed that those who will be saved on the Day of Judgment have already been chosen by God. Good works count for nothing. As anyone who is familiar with the inventor’s life knows, much of Franklin’s later career was devoted to those very acts so haughtily dismissed by his Puritan forebears. Waldman is also accurate in...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)