Founding Faith

The Founders radical new vision for religious liberty

Excerpted from "Founding Faith" by Steven Waldman.

Thomas Jefferson stood, in a black suit, at the doorway of the White House watching a bizarre spectacle. It was New Year's Day 1802 and two horses were pulling a dray carrying a 1,235-pound cheese—just for him. The work of 900 cows, the cheese measured 4 feet in diameter and 17 inches in height. More impressive than the size of the cheese was its eloquence. Painted on the red crust was the inscription: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The cheese was a gift from a Baptist church in western Massachusetts.

It might seem perplexing that religious leaders would be paying tribute to Jefferson, who just a year earlier had been attacked as an infidel and atheist. John Adams' campaign operatives during the 1800 presidential election had suggested that the Francophile Jefferson would destroy America's Christian heritage just as the French revolutionaries had undermined their own. Quoting Jefferson's line that he didn't care whether someone believed in one god or 20, a federalist newspaper had posed the election as a cataclysmic choice: “God—And a religious president...[or] Jefferson—and no God.”

But in a modern context, the most remarkable thing about the cheese is that it came from evangelical Christians. It was the brainchild of the Rev. John Leland, a Baptist and, therefore, a theological forefather of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Though considered anti-religion by some, Jefferson had become a hero to evangelicals—not in spite of his advocacy of separation of church and state, but because of that. Baptists believed state-supported religion violated Jesus’s teachings and deeply appreciated Jefferson’s efforts to keep government and religion far apart.


Are we surprised that some of the most important advocates for separation of church and state were evangelical Christians? If so, it may be because we too often view our history through the lens, darkly, of today’s culture wars. In battles over prayer in school, courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments and other emotional issues, both sides follow a well-worn script: the "religious" side wants less separation of church and state and the "secularists" want more. Straightforward. And from these base-line assumptions flow many others. For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state. “Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation,” writes Falwell . If the Founders were devout Christians, then activists can claim their endorsement for their agenda of inserting more religion into the public square. Tim LeHaye, co-author of the blockbuster apocalyptic Left Behind series, declares in his book

Faith of Our Founding Fathers
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