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 that these men had “beat back the attempts of the secularizers 200 years ago. If they were living today, I know whose side they would champion." Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove that the Founders were irreligious or secular -- and, therefore, of course, in favor of separation. In The Nation magazine, Brooke Allen declares that "the Founding Fathers were not religious men." If they were irreligious, then surely they would oppose letting faith infiltrate the halls of government.
But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, both sides have promoted a howling non-sequitor. In the 18th century it did not follow that one's piety determined ones views about separation of church and state. Being pro-religion didn't mean you were anti-separation. And being pro-separation didn’t mean you were anti-God. In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty. Freedom of conscience, as the Founders liked to call it, is one of the most important characteristics of American democracy and yet the real story of how it happened is rarely told. That's what this book will attempt to do.
Along the way, we will by necessity trample on some common myths:
America was settled as a bastion for religious freedom. Actually, it was settled primarily by people who wanted theocratic rule of one religious denomination dominating others.
The Founding Fathers were mostly rebelling against the religious tyranny in Europe. Actually, they were rebelling as much against the religious tyranny they saw among their colonial neighbors.
The Founding Fathers wanted religious freedom because they were Deists. Actually, few of them were Deists – those who believed that God had created the universe and then receded from action -- as most of the Founding Fathers at one point believed in a God that intervened in the lives of Americans.
The Founding Fathers wanted religious freedom because they were devout Christians. Actually, most of them disliked much about organized Christianity, the clerical class and its theology, especially the common Calvinist doctrine that salvation came only from expressed faith in Jesus – or from being among God's select -- rather than through good works.
Evangelical Christians invariably want more government support for religion and less separation of church and state. Actually, separation of church and state would not exist without the crucial role of 18th century evangelicals.
The American Revolution was fought solely over economic and philosophical issues. Actually, one of the most important factors was religion.
The United States was founded as a "Christian Nation." Actually, North America was settled as a Christian realm, and many states did promote Christianity even after the nation's founding, but the United States of America was not established as a "Christian nation."
The First Amendment was designed to separate church and state throughout the land. Actually, the Founders only intended it to apply to the federal government, not the local governments that regulate schools, local courthouses and town squares.
But this book is not, for the most part, about myth-busting or mocking the different sides in the culture wars. In fact, I hope you'll discover that both sides actually have brought some keen insights, and can learn from each other. Though I will occasionally tie the history back to contemporary conflicts, and do return to those issues in the concluding chapter, this book aspires mostly to simply describe the dramatic birth of religious freedom, without the distortions introduced by either a heavy ideological agenda or romantic wishful thinking.
Why do we have religious freedom? How did it happen? And, therefore, how do we preserve and treasure it?
The first part of the story, the first 150 years, is ugly. Most colonies were established to promote particular religious denominations – and some of the results were brutal. The martyrs for religious freedom in America include: the Quakers hung from trees in the Boston Common; the Baptist minister in Virginia, imprisoned for preaching without a license, who stood powerless as a heckler urinated in his face through a jailhouse window; and the Catholics who fought in the Continental Army even though some revolutionary leaders considered them in league with Satan. Home-grown persecution helped discredit the idea that government should promote particular religions.
It was not just religious excess that stimulated the move toward freedom. Religious fervor – the passion of true believers who felt vivified by faith – fueled the drive for liberty, too. To a degree rarely acknowledged, the American Revolution and the new approach to church and state that resulted, were powerfully shaped by the Great Awakening, a period of evangelical resurgence in the mid seventeenth century led by a cross-eyed preacher named George Whitefield. Whitefield and his Great Awakening brethren encouraged colonists to challenge authority and though their first target was the Miter, the Scepter was not far behind.