Liberating the Founders
I’ve enjoyed Steven Waldman as a journalist and commentator through the last two election seasons because he refused to tolerate or perpetuate the culture wars that embittered American politics. After the poll-driven “moral values” debate in 2004, he took both conservatives and liberals to task for demonizing and caricaturing the other â€” to our collective detriment.
Â» Find your station
SOF via E-mail:
Â» Sign up for the newsletter
We are moving beyond the worst of those culture wars, it seems. And as we do so, the journalistic and historical investigation Waldman has been making in recent years can be an aid and a guide.
Waldman reminds us that the genius of the U.S. founders was not in getting everything right from the outset, but in learning from their mistakes, with an eye out for the missteps of their own time. The first 150 years of colonial history, as he retraces it, involved a cascade of failed experiments with official state religions. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both became champions of the separation of religion and state â€” albeit with very different emphases â€” in part through their revulsion at the intolerance and violence that marked these experiments.
This is not the history that many of us learn in school. Or perhaps we simply don’t internalize it in light of the genuine nobility of the grand narrative. Recently at Princeton University I spoke with an undergraduate doing her senior thesis on religious liberty in the early republic. She told me of her utter astonishment at realizing that every original colony aside from Rhode Island was some form of state-sanctioned religion. The last of these â€” the Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts â€” was not disestablished until 1833.
Steven Waldman had this same sense of discovery in his own research, and he dwells with some insistence â€” for our collective edification â€” on the dark side of this early history. He reminds us of the intolerance and outright violence of Virginia’s Anglicans and Massachusetts’ Congregationalists. He tells the story of Mary Dyer, who was hanged on the Boston Commons for being Quaker. This is in the land of liberty. It is a period of American history we have sentimentalized and glossed over. The facts, as he tells them, are shocking.
At the same time, he finds a way to forgive our confusion, and our gloss on history. We come by them honestly â€” as a direct inheritance from the founders themselves, who were equally confused, and imprecise, and muddied by the politics of their moment in time.
This history is another salutary exercise in the spiritual discipline I call “remembering forward.” In the lives of nations as of individuals, seeing ourselves more realistically and less idealistically is a fundament of clear-sightedness and right action into the future.
And for me, this moment of remembering forward about American history becomes a cautionary experience in light of last week’s program with Ingrid Mattson. We received an inordinate amount of reflexively vitriolic e-mail, reacting incredulously to the very notion of a moderate Muslim voice out of sync with the widespread images of violence done in the name of Islam. A self-righteous sense of U.S. history as an unbroken arc of triumph and goodness does not serve us well as citizens and leaders in the 21st-century world.
More positively stated: an active, self-aware memory of the difficulty and struggle, the violence and mistakes, that accompanied the birth of American democracy â€” and that only gradually and fitfully led to the virtue we now prize of separation of church and state â€” could be a great gift and resource in helping young democracies around the world. Our own history seen in the light of fact, and removed from the distorting divides of our time, could be a source of our greatest wisdom and reason precisely towards what is difficult and dangerous in the contemporary world.
I Recommend Reading:
Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
by Steven Waldman
This is at once a lively and light-hearted, learned and important book.