Thursday, March 13, 2008

Waldmann vs Waldman

and Glastris.

Paul Glastris wrote

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS REALLY CHRISTIANS?....Religious conservatives have long insisted that the Framers were deeply and traditionally Christian, an assertion central to their contention that America was founded as a "Christian nation." Secular liberals, by contrast, have long argued that most of the Founders were agnostics or, at best, Deists who believed that reason, not scripture, is the true path to understanding the Almighty.


OK time to name some names. Which secular liberals argue that most of the founding fathers were agnostics, or, at "best"* deists. I have never heard or read that claim.

First, all discussion on the issue by agnostic or atheist liberals (or radicals) concerned Franklin or Jefferson. The founding fathers numbered more than 3 so 2 of them were not most of them. When I read Waldman's second post on the topic, I learned that John Adams died a unitarian. I had assumed he lived and died a congregationalist (I don't count Waldman as an atheist or a liberal).

Second I have never heard or read the suggestion that Jefferson and Franklin were agnostic. I have heard the claim that they were deists. For example, I quote Waldman from the tpmcafé discussion to which Glastris linked "Actually I quote that passage in my book ... the same Franklin who said he was a Deist." Yes, note that Waldman agrees that Franklin said that he was a deist. Odd where those silly secular liberals get their crazy notions. Waldman goes on to note that, by the time of the constitutional convention he quite clearly stated that he had changed his mind. Thus Waldman's argument is that the founding father Franklin (unlike the younger Franklin) was not a deist.

Now, before criticizing a guest at Kevin "always click the link" Drum, I should have clicked alll the links. Still I think that your summary creates a false balance between the clearly false claims of the religious right and a claim by a tiny minority of secular liberals and, indeed, tiny minorities of secular radicals and of atheist liberals.

I am now going to quote and challenge Waldman from the tpmcafè and then, if I get to it, his first post on the topic at ???

"But – and I know I’ll be accused of unmanly centrism on this – there’s a non-sequitor sometimes offered by progressives, too. Some argue that because many of the Founders wanted separation of church and state, they therefore must have been either irreligious or wanted less role for religion in American life."

I don't accuse him of "unmanly"* centrism. For one thing, I don't consider "unmanly" to be a pejorative. I accuse him of dishonest use of the rhetoric of centrism. He is linking his clearly accurate characterization of named conservative Christians who claim that the founders (without distinction) were conservative Christians with his claim that "some"* say that people who believe in separation of church and state must be "irreligious"*. If people fell for rhetorical tricks, the overwhelming evidence for the first claim would trick them into accepting the second different claim. From the comments I have read at the café it doesn't seem to have worked.

I note, in passing, that Waldman's accusations against secular liberals vary over time. I recall the post which I have read criticizing the claim that the founders were deists. Here he criticizes the claim that the founders were irreligious. These are very different claims. I haven't actually heard or read any claim that any founder was irreligious. Of course Waldman has studied the question at length and I'm sure he cites such claims in his book. I note my ignorance only to argue that they are rare. I think that the some who claim that the founders were irreligious are few and clearly flaky. As to the argument that a belief in separation of church in state implies irreligion, I find it hard to imagine any supporter of separation of church and state who has that idea. I'm sure such people exist. I don't think I have met one. I think they are very very rare. I am going to check how long I have to read Waldman, before I get to the name of someone who argues that the founders were irreligious or that most of them were deists. I will also look for the name of a supporter of separation of church and state who thinks that if one supports separation of church and state, then one must be irreligious, but I don't expect to find it.

Oh now I'm pissed. Commenter redshift wrote "However, I've seen no evidence that Mr. Waldmann bothered to find out anything more about the beliefs of 18th-century Unitarians than he did about 18th-century Deists before he started throwing around assertions about them.
Posted by Redshift." Yeah well RReddshiftt how about you readd before you question someone else's scholarshipp ? "Mr Waldmann" is named Waldman nott Waldmann !

OK here we are

My apologies for not responding in the comment area earlier. I actually had the mistaken understanding that I wasnt supposed to go into the comment area. My mistake.

OK didn't take long

Obviously there's a lot more detail in the book, but here's just one example: In The Nation magazine, Brooke Allen declares that "the Founding Fathers were not religious men." As for Washington, she writes, "Religion seems to have played a remarkably small role in his own life."

I believe both of those statements are wrong. But I also dont think their inaccuracy undermines the fundamental case /for/ separation of church and state.


That's a name. And not someone ranting to himself. It is not clear to me if Allen is saying that the founders were irreligious or that they weren't devout. So one name so far and it is still very early.

Here is a specific claim "It's a fair question. I know that on a personal level I heard "the Founders were all Deists" from my liberal friends about as much as I hear "the Founders were all Christians" from my conservative friends." No names here, but if he is talking about personal conversations with friends he shouldn't name names. His experience differs from mine (to put it mildly). I have heard neither argument from my friends.

There is also direct evidence from the comments thread. Redshift again "Progressives aren't trying to prove all the founders weren't religious (though that's certainly true for some of them)" If the them refers to founders not progressives, then Redshift has made a claim which I read there for the first time.

On the other hand, all of the evidence on the frequency of the view that "because many of the Founders wanted separation of church and state, they therefore must have been either irreligious or ..." is negative. Commenter after commenter stresses that the religious beliefs of the founders are irrelevant to any question about separation of church and state.

Brilliant commenter nindid suspects that Waldman is making "an attempt to mollify conservatives who hate nothing more than the liberal bias of facts. If they hear that progressives got it equally wrong - reality be damned - they might listen a bit more." I think that might be exactly right (although I can read Waldman's mind no more than nindid can).

OK so much for the other hand. amcarey writes "many of the Founders WERE Deists and that this fact DOES strengthen the case for separation of church and state, particularly from the perspective of an originalist. (I'm not one," evidently even though he is not an originalist, he thinks that the deism of many of the founders strengthens the case for spearation at least a little although not as much as it would if original intent were a valid interperative tool. I don't see how it could matter at all to a non originalist. I deduce a sloppy use of "particularly". Plust TOO MANY CAPS.

In the unlikely case that anyone has read this far, this is the end of Waldmann vs Waldman. I liked the title, but there is no need for someone else to pile on Waldman. He is getting torn to pieces over there. His few defenders don't make arguments about the content of his claim but just insult his critics or, in one case, suggest that maybe he will write quite different things in the near future so people should wait before criticizing what he wrote so far.



*The quotation marks are honest to God quotation marks as I am quoting Glastris. Heaven forfend that I use "scare quotes."

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