Well into the 21st century, Americans still argue about the proper relationship between government and religion.
These fights center on the intentions of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
For instance, the Feb. 14 issue of The New York Times Magazine carried a cover story called, "How Christian Were the Founders?" It explored the Texas Board of Education's contention that our founding fathers meant the United States to be a Christian nation — and the board's efforts to make the Lone Star State's public-school textbooks reflect those views.
By coincidence, I recently happened across an audio recording of Steven Waldman's 2008 book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (Random House, $16).
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Most supposed explorations of the founders' beliefs tend to be polemics, less concerned with gaining insight than with cherry-picking quotes that reinforce the author's dogmas.
But Founding Faith proved to be remarkably unbiased — the best thing I've read, or listened to, on what our earliest leaders thought about church and state.
Waldman is the editor-in-chief of the faith and spirituality Web site Beliefnet.com and a former national editor of U.S. News and World Report.
Founding Faith delivers a historical narrative sure to give liberals and conservatives alike cause for rejoicing and, simultaneously, acid reflux.
The Europeans who journeyed to America in the early 1600s indeed tended to be a religious lot, Waldman argues. Many saw the New World as their promised land, and believed its settling would usher in the biblical millennium.
They also were certain it was government's job to promote Christianity, or at least their own brands of Christianity. Most of the 13 colonies had official state churches. The Puritans ruled New England, for example; Anglicans reigned in the South.
Gradually, though, other sects — Baptists, Quakers, Catholics — arrived.
And by the mid-1700s, a massive revival broke out. The Great Awakening was a religious revolution that led directly to the American Revolution. It multiplied the ranks of evangelicals who claimed they owed no allegiance to state churches or earthly kings.
Throughout the century and a half that preceded the Revolutionary War, colonial governments responded viciously to such upstarts. Those who refused to bow to the established churches were imprisoned, were flogged bloody, had burning pokers bored through their tongues, were urinated upon, were banished and, in a number of cases, were executed.
Enter Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Waldman presents these men not as mythic figures whose tenets were carved unchangeably on stone tablets, but as very human intellectuals, politicians and seekers who were trying to figure out what they believed personally about God even as they publicly debated religion's role in the nation they were creating.
Citing at length from their journals, letters and official documents, Waldman turns up numerous surprises.
Franklin and Jefferson, favorites of modern liberals, weren't true Deists, as they're often portrayed. While both men rejected biblical accounts of miracles and thought Christianity was often corrupted by venal clergy, they believed in a monotheistic God who was active in human affairs. Franklin composed private prayers. Jefferson studied Jesus' moral teachings. Both said Christianity was, at its best, a civilizing force beneficial to individuals and society.
Washington and Adams, darlings of today's conservatives, weren't orthodox Christians. Washington was active in his church, but wouldn't take Communion and rarely if ever mentioned Jesus. Adams was a Unitarian who didn't believe in Jesus' divinity or in the Trinity.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington became the first founder to impose a division between church and state, when he banned religious discrimination in the Continental Army.
Still, he did this less from ideology than pragmatism. Sectarian strife was splitting his forces, and persecution against Catholic soldiers infuriated France, his ally.
But it's Madison who best demonstrates for us moderns how tricky it is to interpret the founders through the prism of our current culture wars.
Radically against any mixing of religion and government, Madison opposed support for military chaplains and even generic proclamations calling for a day of prayer.
He did this, paradoxically, because he was sympathetic toward Christianity generally and evangelicalism specifically. He was educated at an evangelical college and apparently earned his legal reputation by defending Baptists in court.
Madison won election to Congress after promising those Baptists he'd see to it the new government stayed completely out of matters of faith.
His original version of the First Amendment prohibited all expressions of religion by the federal government and by states, too. The amendment we ended up with is a vaguely worded, watered-down compromise that, as a politician, Madison was forced to accept.
Madison wanted Christianity to flourish. He said official endorsements of religion only propped up corrupt denominations and indolent preachers — that God alone sustained the churches and clergy he had ordained, and needed no help from the kingdoms of this world.
For this he was beloved by the evangelicals of his time.
Oh, how far we've come. Today's evangelicals would pillory him as a heathen and secularists might hail him as a kindred soul. They'd both be wrong.