From Anglican Virginia, Puritan New England, Quaker Pennsylvania and everywhere in between, Waldman makes it clear that America, both as a set of colonies and as a young republic, was no hotbed of religious freedom. Boston-based Puritans routinely beat and tortured Quakers in their midst, for instance, and though Maryland was founded explicitly as a refuge for Catholics in 1632, less than a century later they were barred from owning property or voting; priests could be imprisoned for life. After independence, most states barred non-Christians (a group that sometimes included Catholics) from holding office.
Though he spends a lot of time on Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson (and convincingly dispels the idea that they were deists or non-believers), the real hero of Waldman’s account is James Madison, the fourth president and the father of the Constitution. As a young man in 18th century Virginia, Madison witnessed the systematic and at times brutal repression of dozens of “unlicensed” Baptist preachers by the Anglican-dominated government. Madison’s “transformational ideas about religious freedom grew in part from disturbing incidents in his backyard,” says Waldman. Madison concluded that separating church and state not only secured the most basic human right of conscience, it created the precondition for religion to thrive.