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Thomas Kidd's op-ed column about the Founding Fathers and Christianity--was America founded as a Christian nation
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Madison and the evangelicals finally won the day with the adoption of Virginia's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 (originally penned by Jefferson in 1777), which guaranteed that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."
Madison's prediction about churches prospering under religious liberty also came true, as Baptists, Methodists, and other evangelical congregations grew explosively in the decades following disestablishment.
The triumph of religious liberty in Virginia was followed by the adoption of the First Amendment's prohibition in 1791 of a national "establishment of religion." But did disestablishment on the federal and state levels mean that Americans preferred a secular public sphere? Not at all. Few Americans could envision such a development.
Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist hailed as a hero of today's secularists, took a generous approach toward the public role of religion after disestablishment. For example, Jefferson routinely attended religious services in government buildings as president. Jefferson was the author, of course, of the 1802 letter in which he argued that the First Amendment had erected a "wall of separation" between church and state. But the same weekend he sent this letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, a Baptist minister named John Leland preached before a joint session of Congress, with the president in attendance.
The actual history of faith and the Founding, then, confounds our expectations. Evangelical Baptists were the staunchest advocates of church-state separation, and their union with deists like Jefferson made the Baptists' vision of religious liberty a reality. You could hardly imagine this collaboration of skeptical politicians and traditional believers today.
Their partnership worked, however, because deists such as Jefferson realized that religious liberty did not require rigid secularism. The Baptists, for their part, knew about Jefferson's personal skepticism, but they supported him because he was the champion of real religious freedom.
Not all America's Founders were devout Christians, but America was founded with Christian principles in mind. Among the most vital of those ideals--one that could bridge the gap between evangelicals and deists--was an expansive concept of religious liberty.
DID THE FOUNDING FATHERS INTEND TO PLANT A CHRISTIAN NATION?
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University and is senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of "God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution" and the forthcoming "Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots."