Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Note: Founding Faith

Knowing my interests in history and church-state issues, a friend of mine recommend a book to me recently. I will share some thoughts about the book, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty, in this post.

The author, Steven Waldman, a co-founder of Belief.Net, took a fairly evenhanded approach in his examination of
  • the role of religion in the lives of several American Founding Fathers (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison),
  • the role of religion in the American Revolution and the formation of the USA, and
  • the role of politics in shaping the USA's fundamental legal documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Waldman's evidence led him to conclude:
  • The five men underwent religious transformations throughout their lives. They didn't receive their youthful catechisms and tuck them away to be drawn upon as needed for future reference; they questioned religious precepts all of their lives and, in some cases, ended at positions strikingly different from those they'd held as young men.
  • All five of them felt that some religion was necessary to protect the common folks from moral corruption and equip them to be good citizens; enlightened people could handle the truth about religious fables and live responsibly, but the common folks couldn't be trusted to do the same. Yes, the founding fathers were elitists (but you already knew that).
  • All of them accepted the premise that the universe was created; this is not surprising when one remembers that their lifespans pre-dated the discoveries of Darwin and later scientists.
  • None of them held beliefs that conservative Christians today would consider suitably Christian; today's Christian Right would excoriate the lot of them as heretics.
  • None of them ever intended that the USA would be a theocratic Christian Nation. They were thoroughly committed to religious pluralism, equality and complete freedom of conscience.

Waldman, reminding us that these five men did not found the country alone, provides some fascinating insights into the negotiating processes that went into shaping the nation's founding documents, particularly the First Amendment. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were hammered out - word by word - by representatives from thirteen disparate states, and then sent to those states for ratification by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Not only was it the will of most Founding Fathers that the USA be a religiously neutral, pluralistic nation, it was the will of many ordinary Americans.

Waldman also notes the importance of remembering that the founding generation could not imagine the ways in which their visions would be realized. For example, since most states did not develop public school systems until the middle and late 19th century, the founders would never have imagined wrangling over school prayer. I suggest that, rather than trying to imagine what Washington or Jefferson would think about such issues, contemporary Americans could better spend our time pondering how the Constitutional principle of pluralism, to take one example, can best be expressed in our contemporary context. The fact is, the USA is no longer the founders' country, it's ours. We need to respect the founders and be grateful for what they gave us, but it's now up to us to use the tools in our hands. Fortunately, for us, the founders gave us good ones, so let's use them wisely.

Near the end of the book, Waldman discusses what he sees as fallacies that contemporary Americans commit when discussing church-state issues. These are:

Conservative Fallacy 1: Most Founding Fathers were serious Christians
Conservative Fallacy 2: Separation of church and state is a 20th century invention of the courts
Conservative Fallacy 3: Advocates of separation are anti-religious

Liberal Fallacy 1: Most founding fathers were Deists or secular
Liberal Fallacy 2: The Constitution demanded strict separation of church and state throughout the land
Liberal Fallacy 3: Separation of church and state was designed mostly to protect religious minorities 

Common Fallacy 4: The founders figured this all out. (Many of them disagreed vehemently, even after the ink was dry, as we still do today, after the pages have yellowed).

In closing, I'll say that I enjoyed Waldman's book. I appreciated the care he took in delineating the theological evolutions of the five founders he examined. I also enjoyed his discussion of the political contexts of the revolution and formation of a new nation based on what were, at the time, radical beliefs and principles. His bias toward religious belief is evident at times, such as when he frames the thinking of the founders as "spiritual journeys," but this doesn't prevent him from reaching the right conclusion regarding the Christian Nation verbiage that today's religious right keeps hurling at our heads: it's bunk (my paraphrase). I can't help wondering, though, if his religious bias led him to downplay the influences of Deism and Enlightenment philosophy on the founders. His discussions of the religious and political contexts of the founders were thorough, but he did not discuss Enlightenment philosophy at all. While I'll concede that secularists may be prone to over-emphasizing the philosophical trends of that era and downplaying the theology, that shortcoming is not best countered by emphasizing the theological contexts at the expense of the philosophy. The theological and philosophical contexts both need to be examined critically and thoroughly if we are to have any hope of understanding the ideas and ideals that motivated America's founders. Notwithstanding this weakness, if you're interested in reading about the religious and political contexts of the American Revolution and early republic, you'll probably enjoy this book.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Let me say, right from the start, that this post probably is not about what you think it's about. Don't blame me. Blame Christopher Fairman, the author of the book under discussion here.  Let me also say that, if you take a quick look at the title of Fairman's book (and miss, overlook or ignore the subtitle), you may be dismayed to discover that his book is not about what you might have thought it would be about either. Nevertheless, if you care at all about freedom of speech and ideas, this is a book you probably should read.

In this provocatively titled book, Fairman discusses the word "fuck" in great detail. He discusses the power of the word, much of which derives from its status as a taboo word and the object of word fetish. He discusses the word's etymology, linguistic and psycholinguistic contexts, its historical uses as a referent to sex and in other ways (as political speech, for example), and its inconsistent judicial status in American jurisprudence. His primary purpose in doing this is to encourage all who care about freedom of thought and speech to protect the use of all language in the formulation and transmission of ideas. Fairman says,
Whether you shout it in the street or whisper it in the bedroom, say it deliberately as a political protest or accidentally let it slip out, make a single fleeting reference or sing an expletive-laden rant, intend to be funny or downright foul, if you say "fuck," someone wants to silence you. We shouldn't passively watch as tiny coalitions with a webpage and a word fetish take some of our words away. When it's the government trying to cleanse your language, you should really worry. We shouldn't tolerate any part of our representative government mucking around in our words....

At issue isn't just protection for some entertainer's potty mouth. Words are ideas. If the government can control the words we say, it can also control what we think. Ultimately, my concern is for the preservation of our most basic liberty - a freedom of the mind (p.10).
Fairman's historical discussion of "fuck" begins with the observation that the word has systematically been excluded from most English dictionaries. He calls this "a deliberate attempt to cleanse the language of this word" (p.37). He also alerts readers that some of the urban legends about the origin of the word as an acronym (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Fornication Under Consent of the King) are false, and explains why this is so. Notwithstanding concerted attempts to wipe the word "fuck" clean out of the English language, the word has been resilient. He explains the reasons for this in a chapter devoted to linguistic and psycholinguistic analyses of the word. One reason for its longevity is its ability to be used in many ways - as a verb (in this case, often with a sexual meaning), an adverb or adjective (these uses are not usually sexual), as a noun (this could be a sexual meaning, but often is not), or simply as an interjection.

One of the evidences of the power of taboo, and the power of fuck as the object of both taboo and fetish, is the use of euphemisms (f-word, f*ck, etc.) in place of the word itself, a practice that Fairman derides as "silly" (p.57). "Fuck" as the object of taboo is in play when its use is avoided (by some) and when its use is deliberately intended (by others) to shock and/or offend; "fuck" as the object of fetish is in play when people have extremely negative emotional reactions to the term and seek to prohibit its use in all circumstances (pp.59-60). Fairman discusses examples of the fuck taboos and fetishes in TV, music, workplaces, classrooms and even courtrooms.

Since Fairman is a lawyer and professor of law, it's not surprising that much of his book deals with legal cases surrounding various uses of the word "fuck." The body of work devoted to legal parsings of this humble little word is quite large, varied and interesting. Not surprisingly, given the seemingly schizophrenic character of American society, the legal status of the word "fuck" is inconsistent, and, consequently, unclear. Sometimes it's obscenity, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's protected speech, sometimes it's not. Fairman contends that this state of uncertainty is not healthy for civic discourse. He bluntly concludes,
The future of fuck is clear. If we continue to allow the state to pick and choose the words we can use and the context in which we can use them, freedom is at stake.... Once that word is extinguished, gone are its literally hundreds of uses, hence hundreds of ideas.... Now you might think I'm an alarmist and that the First Amendment stands to prevent precisely what I foreshadow. But before you discount my fears, please remember: Fuck is being fucked in the shadow of the First Amendment. Neither a Commission nor a court nor a cop should have power over our ideas. To ensure freedom of the mind, fuck must be set free (p. 191).
Fairman's book is well-written, easily grasped and a worthwhile read for anyone with any interest at all in freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. As you've no doubt gathered by now, the book's provocative title was chosen deliberately, precisely because the word "fuck" is tremendously evocative and powerful. It was also chosen deliberately because it is a marginalized (perhaps even endangered) word. When words are marginalized and endangered, the marginalization and endangerment of ideas is not far behind. Freethinkers and freedom lovers can never, in good conscience, allow the intolerance, marginalization and extinction of words and ideas to go unchallenged. I, for one, am indebted to Christopher Fairman for speaking out for my right to fuck.