July 27, 2016
A similar dynamic developed during the ratification of the Bill of Rights. The evangelicals provided the political muscle for the efforts of Madison and Jefferson, not merely because they wanted to block official churches but because they wanted to keep the spiritual and secular worlds apart. “Religious freedom resulted from an alliance of unlikely partners,” writes the eminent historian Frank Lambert in his excellent book The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. “New Light evangelicals joined forces with Deists and skeptics such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to fight for a complete separation of church and state.”

The infidel-evangelical alliance

On one level, this little-known alliance between Jefferson, Madison, and the evangelicals was pragmatic; for different reasons, they shared similar goals. But the connection went far deeper. When evangelicals smashed ecclesiastical authority—by, say, meeting in the fields without the permission of the local clergy—they were undermining authority in general. They were saying that on a deep spiritual level, salvation came through a direct relationship with God and that the clerical middleman was relatively unimportant. Jefferson and other enlightenment thinkers were glorifying the power of the individual mind to determine the truth—through evidence rather than merely tradition. As the historian Rhys Isaac put it, “Jefferson’s system proclaimed individual judgment as sacred, sacred against the pressure of collective coercions; the evangelicals did the same for private conscience.”

Today’s Christian conservatives often note that Jefferson’s famous line declaring that the first amendment had created “a wall separating church and state” was not in the Constitution but in a private letter. But in that letter, Jefferson was responding to one sent to him by a group of Baptists in Danbury, Conn. We usually read Jefferson’s side of that exchange. It’s worth re-reading what the Danbury Baptists had to say because it reminds us that for the 18th-century evangelicals, the separation of church and state was not only required by the practicalities of their minority status, but was also demanded by God. “Religions is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals,” the Baptists wrote, warning that government “dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehova and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.” Government had no business meddling in the affairs of the soul, where there is only one Ruler.

The original intent

The evangelical wariness of the political world persisted for many of the next 200 years. The creation of the Moral Majority changed that. Angry about court rulings allowing abortion and banning prayer in school, Falwell and others argued that Christians should dive aggressively into the public realm in order to promote Christian values. The election of Ronald Reagan, the emergence of the Christian Coalition, and the enormously important role that religious conservatives played in the election of George W. Bush all seemed to validate that strategy. At this moment in history, the evangelical involvement in politics is so strong—and their advocacy of greater government support for religion so persistent—it’s difficult to remember that this view is relatively recent.

What the mainstream media have missed is that this separatist strand of the evangelical movement never went away; it was just defeated and quieted. Look carefully, and the spirit of John Leland can be discerned in some modern evangelicals.

The popular commentator Cal Thomas and the author Ed Dobson, both former officials of the Moral Majority, wrote a courageous book in 1999 called Blinded by the Might, arguing that proximity to power had prompted religious conservatives to abandon their principles and distracted them from their religious mission: “We have confused political power with God’s power.” And the Baptist legacy reappeared after George Bush’s election when a number of religious conservatives surprised pundits by suggesting that churches should not accept money from the faith-based initiative. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that while he hoped Bush’s faith-based plan passed, he personally “would not touch the money with the proverbial 10-foot pole.” The fears expressed by Thomas, Dobson, and Land were the very same ones that Leland or Bachus would have had: that with government involvement will come government interference. Modern religious conservatives have mostly decided to go along anyway because they felt a greater good—the promotion of President Bush and the general encouragement of religion—outweighed the risks.

That moment of nervousness by some religious conservatives about the faith-based initiatives was largely ignored by the mainstream media because it was a minority opinion among contemporary evangelicals and didn’t fit the agreed-upon playbook—the Christian right got Bush elected so surely it must like religious aid—but it indicated that this spirit of John Leland and Isaac Bachus is not entirely dead in the evangelical movement.

A small group of influential evangelical historians have, of late, tried to rebut the notion that the country was founded as a Christian Republic. Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, the preeminent evangelical historians, wrote a book called The Search for Christian America in which they gently, but firmly, attempted to correct a number of misconceptions that modern religious conservatives have about their own past. “The tragedy is that we come to believe that we are attuned to the wisdom of the ages,” they noted, “when in fact the sound we really hear is but an echo of our own voice.”

So far these individuals—the ones we might call the Original Intent Evangelicals—have been overshadowed by higher-profile Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Charles Colson. These leaders insist that the Founders meant only to block the establishment of an official state religion, not to stop all government support of specific religions. Therefore, they argue, the Constitution should be read to allow vouchers for schools that teach religion, prominent displays of the Ten Commandments in government offices, even open proselytizing by military chaplains. In some cases, they go even further. The GOP-controlled Virginia House of Delegates last year passed a measure that would amend the state constitution—and override language that Jefferson himself had written—to allow prayer and proselytizing on all public property (a Senate panel ultimately killed the measure). And a plank in the 2004 Texas Republican platform declares that “the United States of America is a Christian nation” and disparages “the myth of the separation of church and state.”

Contemporary religious conservatives can certainly find quotes from Founding Fathers to support their claims that government should aggressively support religion. They’ll have a harder time finding quotes from 18th-century evangelicals. Falwell and company are free to chart a different course from earlier Christians, but they should do so with the knowledge that some very pious evangelical leaders believed this was a dangerous path. When the Rev. Falwell meets his maker, he may well get a pat on the back from Patrick Henry, but he’s sure to get a tongue lashing, and a sermon, from the Rev. Leland.