RELIGION AND POLITICS; Our Complex Heritage

Article excerpt

A debate continues to rage over the intentions of the Founding Fathers on religion.

Just how much separation did they envision between church and state?

One side contends that the nation was established largely by Christians and that the intent was freedom of religion, not from religion.

The other side contends that the Founding Fathers were not Christians in today's terms but closer to secular humanists.

The reality is complex.

Author Stephen Waldman, in a new book, Founding Faith, does a good job of describing it.

A few of his key points:

Most Founding Fathers were not secular humanists. The typical allegation is that many of the founders were Deists, people who believe God created laws of nature and then receded. Waldman says most of the founders did not fit the classic definition of Deists; they didn't believe God receded from action.

Several key founders were not conservative Christians. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin rejected the divinity of Jesus. "Jefferson loathed the entire clerical class," Waldman wrote.

Separation of church and state has been overstated. The Constitution called for the federal government to stay out of religious affairs, but allowed the states in most cases to mingle the two. Many of the original colonies included dominant faiths. …