DATE March 11, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Steven Waldman, author of "Founding Faith," debunks
myths about the faiths of the founding fathers
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Was America founded as a Christian nation? No. The founding faith was not
Christianity and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty, writes
Steven Waldman in his new book "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the
Birth of Religious Freedom in America." The book debunks some of the myths
about religion in the lives of the founding fathers and in the early history
of the United States. Waldman is also the founder and editor in chief of
Beliefnet, which is generally acknowledged as the largest Web site about
religion and spirituality. It's not affiliated with any religion or movement.
Waldman hopes his research into the past will help clear up some of the
arguments in the current culture wars.
Mr. STEVEN WALDMAN: One of the conclusions that I had in going through this
process is that the culture wars, the fights between activists on both sides
of this, have really distorted what really happened, how we ended up with
religious freedom, and the religious beliefs of the founding fathers.
Everyone cherry picks quotes from founding fathers to prove their point of
view. And after a while you read these things and you feel like there's
almost like a custody battle over the founding fathers. They're just being
used by different camps to prove whatever they want, and the reality of what
actually happened gets distorted.
GROSS: In your book "Founding Faith," among other things, you debunk myths
about religion in the early development of America, so let's start with one of
those myths that you debunk. You say America was settled as a bastion for
religious freedom. It wasn't?
Mr. WALDMAN: It was not settled as a bastion for religious freedom. Most of
the people who came here came because they wanted to establish a particular
denomination, particular approach to religion, often at the expense of other
denominations. And one point that is often lost in this is that it was
usually Protestant denominations--not Christian, but Protestant specifically,
often as a way of fighting the spread of Catholicism.
GROSS: So most of the colonies were interested in religious freedom for their
religion, for the religion that settled the state but not for anybody else's
Mr. WALDMAN: Right. And in fact, one of the things that Americans don't
realize is that, in the first 150 years we had really horrible persecution as
each colony experimented with having a particular religion in charge. And so
in Massachusetts there was terrible persecution of Quakers to the point of
hanging four different Quakers simply for the crime of being a Quaker. In
Virginia there was horrible persecution against Baptists. You go colony by
colony, and in each case there was sort of an experiment in having a majority
or dominant faith running the state, and in each case the experiment failed.
GROSS: Yeah, let me quote something that you quote in the book, and this is
from a 1703 book called "New England Judged by the Spirit of the Lord." It was
written by an English Quaker named George Bishop, and he's talking about some
of the persecution of Quakers. This is about Alice Ambrose, Mary Tompkins and
Ann Coleman, who had taken to preaching their gospel at the river. They were
arrested and, quote, "stripped naked from the middle upward and tied to a
cart. After a while, cruelly whipped whilst the priest stood, looked on and
laughed at it." Does that sound like a pretty typical way that religious
minorities were treated in the colonies?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, it was probably an extreme version, but the persecution
of the Quakers was pervasive in Massachusetts, and you can sense almost the
sadism involved in some of the punishments. I think that really every
American who's interested in religious freedom ought to know the stories of
these Quakers and women like Mary Dyer, who was a Boston woman who had a
similar punishment made to her, again, for the crime of being a Quaker. She
was banished. She came back because she believed in the right to express her
religious beliefs. She was brought up to the scaffold with two other Quakers
to be executed. She watched as her friend's neck snapped, and then they gave
her a reprieve; the goal all along was to force her to watch her friends being
executed. They gave her a second chance. She came back again because of her
conviction that she ought to have the right to practice her faith, and this
time she was executed on the Boston Commons, from an oak tree there.
GROSS: So most of the colonies were created by people who wanted to create a
safe haven for their particular form of Protestantism, although Maryland was
created as a haven for Catholics, and Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers and
other minorities. But one thing that held most of the colonies together is
that they all didn't want Jews.
Mr. WALDMAN: Yes. At least they could agree on that. And most of them
didn't want Catholics, because even in the case of Maryland, which did start
off as a haven for Catholics, quickly got overthrown and became hostile to
Catholics also. But, yeah, when they talked about toleration, as the word
went back then, it really usually referred to toleration of different
Protestant sects, and Jews and Catholics and certainly atheists were simply
not part of the equation. What that mean was they could not hold office, they
could not vote, and other rights were denied.
GROSS: So much for the Judeo-Christian background of America.
Mr. WALDMAN: Yeah, I always laugh when I hear the term that we had
Judeo-Christian heritage, because certainly Jews were not involved, and
Catholics weren't either. It really was a Protestant heritage.
GROSS: My guest is Steven Waldman. He's the author of the new book "Founding
Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America,"
and in the book he debunks a lot of the myths that are commonly held about the
founding fathers and the role of religion in the creation of America.
The British Anglican church was seen as too close to the Catholic church, even
though Henry had broken away from the Catholic church, and during the colonial
period the pope was sometimes called "the anti-Christ," the Catholic Church
was called "the whore." It's interesting because you see that same language in
some contemporary evangelical literature, like the born again series. Isn't
the pope the anti-Christ in that series?
Mr. WALDMAN: Yes and just recently in the controversy over John McCain's
endorsement by John Hagge. His writings in which he referred to the Roman
Catholic Church as the whore of Babylon came back. So that kind of language
has not been purged. And it's really hard to kind of get your head around
this, but back then--we think obviously of Catholics as a major Christian
denomination, a quarter of our population are Catholic--but back then,
Catholics were not just seen as a different Christian denomination. In a lot
of cases they were seen as the enemy and, in many cases, the reason that
people left Europe. This obviously was changing, and by the 1770s it was a
very different mix; Catholics roles started to really change. But for a long
time, Catholics were viewed as enemies of freedom, that the church was an
enemy of freedom. And so it's sort of odd to think that Great Britain would
be criticized for being too Catholic since it wasn't even a Catholic monarchy,
but even saying you resemble Catholicism was thought to be a potent attack.
GROSS: Now, another myth you tried to debunk in your book "Founding Faith" is
that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, because you hear a lot from religious conservatives now
that America was founded as a Christian nation, and it's just not true. It is
true that America was settled in the very early days by Christians wanting to
establish it as a Christian land, but by the time you got to the founding of
the United States of America, the new nation, the founders had looked at what
had happened in the previous 150 years and turned away and turned towards a
different model, and so they very explicitly and intentionally created a
Constitution that was not Christian. And as recently as, you know, five, 10
years before that, there was still very overtly Christian language in
documents, for instance, that the Continental Congress had produced. So the
lack of Christian rhetoric in the Constitution was very notable and was
criticized by some people at the time.
GROSS: So what is some of the religious language that shows up in a lot of
documents of the time that is intentionally not in the Constitution?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, if you look at the Articles of Confederation, it said
that the document hath pleased the great governor of the world. There were
numerous proclamations from the Continental Congress that used language
referring to the "supreme judge, the ruler of the universe." The state
constitutions often referred to Christianity as "the true religion." And even
the Declaration of Independence, of course, says that our rights are endowed
by our creator. Even that wasn't in the Constitution. It was stripped bare
and has literally no religious rhetoric in it at all.
GROSS: So what does that say to you?
Mr. WALDMAN: It says it was a conscious, radical, not accidental step that
the framers of the Constitution took in order to take a different path than
what they had had before, specifically that the national government should not
be thought of as a Christian government. Now, one of the things I do talk
about in the book is that the Constitution was also a pact that said, while
the national government shouldn't be a Christian government, the state
governments could be. So it was a bit more of a mix on this question of
whether we were a Christian nation than you might think.
GROSS: So the establishment clause, which established a separation between
church and state, didn't apply to the states; it only applied to the federal
government. So what are some of the institutions that were left out of the
Mr. WALDMAN: Of course, you know, pretty much everything. You know,
schools, local city halls, most of what happened in America at that time was
regulated by the colonies and states, not by the federal government. And this
was a big disappointment to James Madison, actually. When he was promoting
what became the First Amendment, he wanted it to apply to the states, but he
lost. This is something that's often forgotten, that Madison did not get his
way on that, and that the compromise he had to pull together in order to
rustle up the votes to pass the First Amendment was that this would ban there
being a national religion in the national government but very much allow the
states to do what they wanted. And so at the point of the Constitution, when
it passed, there were states that still banned Catholics from office, banned
Jews from office, made blasphemy a crime, all sorts of religious penalties,
all of that the Constitution let stand.
GROSS: So the establishment clause separating church and state didn't apply
to the states until after the Civil War when the 14th Amendment was written,
Mr. WALDMAN: The 14th Amendment applied the basic rights of the Constitution
and Bill of Rights to the states, so those who are angry that the Constitution
has not allowed for enough religion in the public square, in a way should
shake their first not only at the ACLU or Thomas Jefferson, but also at
Lincoln and General Grant because it was really the Civil War and the passage
of the 14th Amendment that reorganized the basic pact on religious freedom and
said that the same spirit of freedom that was applied just in a limited sense
to the federal government by the founders should now be applied to the states
GROSS: So, as you point out, the ratification of the Constitution was a very
political process. There was a lot of disagreement every step of the way,
and, for example, the establishment clause is constantly being debated. You
know, how does that apply to prayer in the schools and creches in publish
squares. What guides your interpretation of the establishment clause?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, first, that it was very political process and we tend to
almost imagine that it went straight from James Madison's quill pen right over
to the National Archives and, of course, that's not what happened. It was in
a proposal, and then it was a Senate committee, and a House committee and a
conference committee and, you know, much of the horse trading that you see now
on a piece of legislation happened then. That's how the First Amendment was
born. And by design, some of it was kicked own the road to be dealt with by
the rest of us. You almost want to kind of reach back and, you know, slap
Madison in the face--gently, because he was a very frail little man--but you
want to say `there's so much ambiguity here! Why couldn't you have made this
clearer to help us out so we wouldn't have to have 200 years of lawsuits and
court cases to battle this out?' And I think the reality is that some of the
ambiguity was intentional because that was the way they could get it through
in the first place.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Waldman. He's the
founder of Beliefnet, which is a journalistic Web site all about religion,
many religions, it's not affiliated with any religion. He's also the author
of the new book "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of
Religious Freedom in America." In this book he debunks a lot of myths about
the role of religion in the founding of America.
Another myth you try to debunk: The founding fathers wanted religious freedom
because they were devout Christians. They weren't?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, first of all, there's almost no such thing as the
founding fathers when it comes to religious freedom, or at least thinking of
them as a unitary block. The founding fathers often disagreed with each other
over how to deal with this. Some of them were orthodox Christians. Some of
them weren't. But the ones that we tend to focus on as the most important for
religious freedom--meaning George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson,
John Adams, Ben Franklin--none of them were orthodox Christians in the sense
that we mean it now.
For instance, most of those five had very serious problems and criticisms of
church hierarchy and priests. Jefferson and Franklin had turned away from the
Bible as a literal document--they believed that Jesus was a great teacher, but
they didn't think that Jesus was divine--and had really angry, almost vicious
things about the church hierarchy. And in Jefferson's case, he went after
everyone from apostle Paul to Calvin to the doctrine of the Trinity, which he
called "the abracadabra of mountebanks," and he thought the whole Bible was an
exercise in covering up the diamonds, which were Jesus' moral teachings with
what he called the dung that was everything else. So they really were not
orthodox Christians in that sense.
GROSS: Well, Jefferson tried to write a Bible as he thought Jesus would have
wanted it. What are some of the differences between the Bible that Jefferson
was rewriting and the Bible as we know it?
Mr. WALDMAN: This is really an amazing scene. To picture Thomas
Jefferson--he actually started on this while he was president--he's sitting
there in the presidential mansion after the work is done for the day and he
has his Bible in front of him, and he's cutting out the parts of the Bible he
likes and pasting it into a new volume. And then he repeated the process
later on in 1899 when he was in retirement, and basically he cut out the
miracles. He cut out any sign that Jesus was divine. He essentially cut out
the Christmas story and the Easter story. In Jefferson's Bible, the rock is
moved in front of Jesus' tomb and never moves again. That's where his Bible
ends. We have, on Beliefnet, we've just created a "Founding Faith" archive.
One of the things we have on there is an online version of the Jefferson
Bible, where you can click on little icons of scissors to see what Jefferson
cut. And it's really remarkable. I mean, you look at this and think, wow,
this guy could never get elected now. Jefferson just wouldn't have been able
to pass political scrutiny given the things he said about religion and
GROSS: I guess you could say he certainly didn't have a fundamentalist point
of view, where the New Testament is the literal word of God. He was, you
know, rearranging it, cutting and pasting it.
Mr. WALDMAN: He was cutting and pasting it. And his goal, he said, was to
rescue the character of Jesus. This is something that's often lost and
sometimes people look at Jefferson and think, oh, he was anti-religion and
anti-God and he was was a secular guy. That's not true, either. He had real
problems with the Bible and with church, but in a way he was actually a very
religious or spiritual person. He was doing this whole exercise of editing
the Bible because he felt that Christianity and Jesus' teaching were the most
sublime and true in history and that they had been corrupted.
And you also read his writings about the universe and nature, and it's clear
he's actually a very religious person. He saw the proof of God in nature. He
looked at the orbit of the planets. He looked at the plant species. He
looked at the way that nature regenerated itself. And he said this is
absolute proof that God exists, and it is proof that God had a design for
nature, which is sort of interesting in the context of a modern debate because
a lot progressives often look to Jefferson as the kind of secularist hero, but
if you read his writings, he was a supporter of what is now called intelligent
design. He believed that God designed nature and the universe and the way
things work very consciously and deliberately.
GROSS: Now, George Washington, you say, believed in an omnipotent and
constantly intervening God but he did not see Jesus as a personal savior?
Mr. WALDMAN: This was a big disappointment to Christians of the era that
they couldn't get Washington to come out and say more overtly Christian
things. He would go to church, probably about once a month, but he refused to
take communion. His wife took communion, but he didn't. And this was very
much noticed by the clergy of the time. On the other hand, he is continuously
describing what he thought of as the interventions of God in his life and in
the life of America and in the course of the Revolutionary War. He was
utterly convinced that they simply would not have won, given the odds they
were against, without what he called the smiles of providence, without the
active interventions of God to save Washington's life, to bring the
continental army to victory, and then as president he again continued to use
religious rhetoric and to talk about God as being actively involved in guiding
the health of this new nation.
GROSS: Now, you write that when George Washington was a general during the
Revolutionary War, that he purged the anti-Catholic bias from the military,
and that that was kind of a military necessity. Why was it a military
necessity, and how did he end the anti-Catholic bias within the troops?
Mr. WALDMAN: George Washington is really quite an important figure in terms
of the history of religious tolerance in America, not so much what he did as
president, but for what he did as the leader of the continental army. And
what was happening was it was kind of a regular tradition once a year to burn
effigies of the pope on Guy Fawkes Day, and this was happening in 1774 and
1775 as it usually did, and Washington was just appalled by this. He said,
`This is monstrous.' He didn't like it as a personal matter, but there was
something else, which is that he was trying to neutralize and win over the
French-Canadians to the north, who were Catholic, and they were in a very
important effort to try to win France as an ally to the American cause, which
was also--France was Catholic at the time. He said, `This is not only wrong,
it's stupid. We're going to'--I don't think he used the word stupid, but--he
probably said ill-advised and monstrous--but he thought it was very
And he banned the practice, and he also got the Continental Congress to switch
on this as well. Up until that point Congress had been passing sort of
anti-Catholic resolutions, and then they sort of got with the program and came
to realize that if they were going to try to court France as an ally, they
needed to start reaching out to Catholics and start talking about religious
tolerance as a virtue and as a great asset in American life.
GROSS: What surprised you most in your research into the role of religion in
the founding of America?
Mr. WALDMAN: I was surprised by the intensity of the persecution that
occurred in the first 150 years, which was brutal and pervasive and happened
in almost every colony. I was surprised that the idea of having official
state religions was not something that just existed in Europe but existed in
most of the colonies. And in the end, I was surprised by the role of Madison,
GROSS: You describe him as the radical pluralist.
Mr. WALDMAN: Madison was the one who came up with kind of the most holistic
and integrated philosophy of religious freedom. It borrowed from the
Enlightenment thinkers who were worried about religion messing up government,
but it also borrowed from the evangelical Christians of that day--the
Baptists, who Madison was very close to--and their view is different. Their
view was that separation of church and state was crucially important in order
to promote religion. We have this notion right now that--you know, you have
conservatives who say that we need to promote religion, and therefore we
should have less separation of church and state, and you have some people who
are advocating for more separation as a way of reducing the role of religion.
Madison's view, and the view of the evangelicals at that moment, was really
different. They wanted to promote religion. They thought having religion
flourish was very important to the birth of this republic. They just thought
that the best way for religion to flourish was for government to get out of
the way, and that was a very different--it's a very different perspective than
you hear now.
I think one of the most surprising things during this research was about the
role of the evangelicals in the 18th century because 21st century evangelicals
tend to take up the position that religion is important, we need to promote
religion, and therefore we need to have more religion in the public square.
And there's even a common argument among religious conservatives now that
separation of church and state was a myth. If you go back and look at the
18th century evangelicals, the 18th century evangelicals would completely
disagree with the 21st century evangelicals. And in fact, those Baptists of
that period were just as responsible, probably more responsible for American
having religious freedom than just about any other religious group. The
evangelicals of that period were the foot soldiers in the battle for religious
freedom. They were Madison and Jefferson's key allies in promoting separation
of church and state.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Waldman. His new book
is called "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious
Freedom in America. He's also the founder of Beliefnet, which is a
journalistic Web site about religion.
And your Web site has been following the campaign, you know, various
journalists following various aspects of the presidential primaries. So I
guess I'd like to know if there's one particular religious development, or
development about religion in the campaign so far that stands out in your mind
as being emblematic about ongoing debates about religion in our country.
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, I was struck when John McCain a while back, in an
interview with Beliefnet, was asked, `Do you believe that the Constitution
created a Christian nation?' and he said yes, he did believe that, which
actually reflects public opinion polls, that the majority of American public
believes that as well. So that first showed me that McCain was really working
hard to curry favor with Christian base and he felt that saying that was going
to gain support; and second, that it really shows that there is still a lot of
misunderstanding about what actually happened then.
The other thing that is really notable about this campaign is that Democrats
this time around are much more comfortable with the use of religious language
in their campaigns than they were in previous elections. So you may not have
what you had before, which was one party, the Republicans, seeming to be
comfortable with religious language and the other party, the Democrats, being
uncomfortable. It's sort of, as Time magazine called it, the leveling of the
GROSS: You were mentioning how McCain is trying to get the vote of the
religious right. I'd like to ask you about the fact that he sought the
endorsement, and received the endorsement of Pastor John Hagge, who many
people consider to have very extreme beliefs. Let me play you a quote from an
interview I did with John Hagge in 2006, and I had asked him if he really did
believe, as he stated in one of his sermons, that Hurricane Katrina was
retribution from God to the city of New Orleans.
(Soundbite of previous FRESH AIR)
Mr. JOHN HAGGE: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the
heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to
God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper
carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there
was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that Katrina came, and the
promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality
never demonstrated before in any of the other gay pride parades. So I believe
that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know there are people who
demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate
the law of God that God brings punishment, sometimes before the day of
judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was in fact the judgment
of God against the city of New Orleans.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Pastor John Hagge recorded on FRESH AIR in 2006, and my guest
is Steve Waldman, the founder of the religion Web site Beliefnet and author of
"Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in
So, listening to that, what does it say to you that John McCain solicited
Pastor Hagge's endorsement and has appeared with him?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, one thing I think it says is that when McCain tries to
curry favor with Christians, he's sort of inept at it. This is sort of new to
him. And the reason I say that is that Hagge, though he has a big following,
is actually considered a bit outside the mainstream of evangelical Christians.
So it's a very double-edged sword to get Hagge's endorsement. He's obviously
stirring up a lot of controversy because of his anti-Catholic comments and
anti-gay comments and anti-Muslim comments, but it's not like Hagge is a
beloved and universally respected figure within evangelicalism.
And this seems to be a problem that McCain has periodically, is that the sort
of sucking up to this particular group doesn't come naturally to him, and he
lurches back and forth, like he gave an interview with Beliefnet a while back
where he said he wouldn't appoint a Muslim to the Cabinet, which I guess he
probably thought was something that would appeal, and then he called back and
retracted it and said that wasn't what he meant. He sort of--and you remember
from in 2000 he called leaders from the religious right "agents of
intolerance," and then this time around he said it wasn't true. So he's
really having trouble figuring out how to do this.
GROSS: Looking at the Democratic side for a second, what does it say to you
that some people are questioning whether Barack Obama has always been a
Christian and suggesting that he used to be a Muslim?
Mr. WALDMAN: First, it shows that Islam is perceived to be a toxic religion.
When polls ask if there are any candidates you would vote against if they had
certain religions, really the only two that have very strong negative results
are Islam and Mormonism, so it is probably viewed as a pretty potent attack to
convince people that he's Muslim.
The other thing that strikes me, that perhaps wouldn't have struck me before I
started work on "Founding Faith," is that the idea of using religion as an
attack in a political campaign is really not new, and in 1800 you had this
really incredible election between Adams and Jefferson in which the two of
them attacked each other using kind of equally scurrilous religious attacks.
In the case, they said Jefferson was an atheist and an infidel, and they said
Adams was going to impose his religion on everyone else. So unfortunately we
have kind of a long history of subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, uses of
religion to damage political campaigns during elections.
GROSS: It's pointed out on your Web site in a fact check type of article
about Barack Obama that Farrakhan, when praising Obama, said, `I haven't made
myself available to him and he hasn't made himself available to me.' During
one of the debates when Hillary Clinton asked Obama about it, he said that he
denounced Farrakhan, and Hillary said, `But do you reject him?' And then he
said, `OK, I'll use the word "reject."' What do you make of that conversation
about, you know, the fact that Farrakhan has spoken favorably of Obama?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, it was bound to be a touchy question that Obama was going
to have to deal with. Almost any politician in Illinois has to deal with it.
And I think it's quite fair to then ask the same questions of McCain about
Hagge. It is pretty analogous. In fact, the one difference is that McCain
actually actively sought the support of Hagge, which Obama did not in the case
GROSS: Steven Waldman, you are the founder of Beliefnet, which is a
journalistic Web site about religion, all religions. You used to write for
U.S. News and World Report. Why did you found a religion Web site?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, I became convinced that the coverage of religion and
spiritually in the United States was really not very good and didn't really
reflect how deeply important religion was in the lives of many Americans, so
we started the site in 1999. It's a multi-faith site, and it is partially
journalistic and informational and then it's partially community and even
devotional, giving people opportunities to connect with resources about their
faith as well as with other people who are on the similar part of a spiritual
GROSS: You founded Beliefnet as a journalist. Has running Beliefnet affected
your own religious life?
Mr. WALDMAN: Yeah. For one thing, it has focused me on religion and
spirituality in a way that I don't think I would have had I been off onto some
other topic. It has made me less afraid to ask stupid questions about
religion. You know, I think there's a real taboo on discussing religion and
asking questions because you'd be afraid to be embarrassed, and I've just come
to realize how incredibly diverse and complex this all is. And I'm less
fearful about appearing to be a religious idiot because, in a way, everyone
is, and everyone is still trying to figure this all out and probe their own
faiths as well as others.
GROSS: What's a kind of question you would have been afraid to ask for
appearing to be too foolish?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, you know, I'm Jewish and I'm in an interfaith marriage.
My wife is Protestant, and almost any time I go to synagogue or church, there
are moments in the course of the ceremony where I would love to kind of
freeze-frame the whole thing, stand up in the back and raise my hand and say,
`Wait, go back, go back. You know, what did you mean by that? What was that?
What was that phrase?' You know, why, you know, some concepts that are, you
know, murky when you hear them the first time or the 12th time and when you
ask about them, you realize that they're the sort of things that scholars and
sages have been debating and chewing over for millennia and you, you know, you
feel less inadequate from having wondered about it.
GROSS: So do you feel like you've become any more or less Jewish or any more
or less spiritual as opposed to committed to the practices of a specific
Mr. WALDMAN: Oddly, I think both have happened. I think I have become more
religious and spiritual as a Jew, and I think I've also come to see the
principles and values of other religions at the same time, and that those have
actually improved my own religious practice both as a Jew and as an American.
GROSS: Well, Steven Waldman, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. WALDMAN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Steven Waldman is the author of the new book "Founding Faith:
Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America." he's also
the co-founder and editor in chief of the faith and spirituality Web site
You can download podcasts of our interviews on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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Review: Ken Tucker on Donita Sparks + the Stellar Moments' new
TERRY GROSS, host:
Donita Sparks co-founded the all-girl punk band L7 in the mid-1980s, during
which time she was politically active as well, helping to organize the
Rockford Choice series of concerts. L7 dissolved, and Sparks has a new,
looser coalition of players, some of them men, including producer Ethan Allen.
The debut album by this group, Donita Sparks + the Stellar Moments, is called
"Transmiticate." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of "Need to Numb")
Ms. DONITA SPARKS: (Singing) Get that creep coming down the street
Because he's holding and I need to numb
Get that jam on the record machine
Cause I'm rolling and I need to numb
Dance, dance, dance till you lose your pants
Because it's coming and we need to numb
Put it in my palm and I'll swallow it down
Because I'm broken and I need to numb
(End of soundbite)
Mr. KEN TUCKER: Donita Sparks + the Stellar Moments' new album is called
"Transmiticate," which she admits is a made-up word, to be interpreted as, and
I quote, "meaning to communicate through transmission, to pick up signals and
then send out your own." The signals Sparks pick up extends back to '70s punk
rock and further. Drummer Dee Plakas, who's the sole L7 member to make the
leap to being a Stellar Moment, continues to drum with a fluid power. She
propels much of the music. Listen to her nail the beats into place on the
album's first single, "Infancy of a Disaster."
(Soundbite of "Infancy of a Disaster")
Ms. SPARKS: (Singing) Infancy of a disaster
I already see it unfold
Infancy of a disaster
Baby, growing old
Infancy of a disaster
Broke me off a piece of string
Infancy of a disaster
Better rearrange, ange
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Although as a songwriter, Sparks prides herself on killer guitar
hooks, she's always been about the song, building up to a chorus with verse
details about the difficult, delicate intricacies of sustaining a
relationship. Listen to her version of a one-woman girl group laying it all
on the line on "Creampuff."
(Soundbite of "Creampuff")
Ms. SPARKS: (Singing) I got a wish
I'll make it twice
I wish that we were hanging out tonight
Look at the sky
It's coming down
A million teardrops bouncing off of the ground
The brain feels no pain
While the heart breaks apart
You're flashing through my mind's eye
Gallery of art
Backup Singers: (Singing) Where are you now?
Ms. SPARKS: (Singing) Memories are resilient
They survive in the dark
Because the brain feels no pain
While the heart breaks apart
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: That is a terrific rock vocal: conversational, melodic but not
particularly concerned about pitch, rising up to meet the swell of the music
when the volume increases. But much of the time, this 40-something
singer/songwriter sounds about as vulnerable as the Shangri-Las or the
Pretenders' Chrissy Hynde, which is to say, not at all.
(Soundbite of "He's Got the Honey")
Ms. SPARKS: (Singing) He's got the honey
For all of the bees
His smile is diamonds
With no cavities
They say that he's got
He's got good genes
But I know what
Is his best quality
He's got the honey
For all of those bees
But I can kind of sense
His best quality
He's got the sugar
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: Even on that rouser, the key couplet is "I think his kindness is
his best quality." Sparks remains a feminist for whom romanticism doesn't mean
sentimentality; it means passion. This album isn't going to make Donita
Sparks any bigger star than she was with L7, but it certainly does have a lot
of "stellar moments."
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Transmiticate," the debut album by Donita Sparks + the Stellar Moments.
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