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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Religion and Liberty

Another fine feature of the new issue of the Washington Monthly is a carefully reasoned and solidly researched article by BeliefNet founder Steve Waldman about the all-but-forgotten history of evangelical Christians’ passionate support for the most radical notions of religious liberty during the founding period of the Republic.What makes Waldman’s account especially valuable is that he directly comes to grips with a whole generation of conservative evangelical revisionist history on this topic, particularly the claim that the First Amendment was only intended to prevent establishment of a particular Church, and should not be understood as prohibiting general public support for Christianity. As Waldman explains, Virginia had a very clear and specific debate on this proposition in the years immediately following the Revolution, when Patrick Henry proposed a system allowing citizens to designate a tax to support the church of their choice, and James Madison, soon to become the “Father of the Constitution,” strongly opposed it. Madison ultimately prevailed in this debate, in no small part because of vocal support from evangelicals, and especially the Baptist forefathers of today’s most avid opponents of the “wall of separation” interpretation of the Establishment Clause.Waldman’s evocation of Madison’s key role in promoting a more radical idea of religious liberty is also useful because another revisionist theory often suggests that the whole idea of church-state separatism was little more than a typically heretical quirk of the notoriously heterodox Thomas Jefferson. If Madison, who once trained for the Anglican priesthood, and remained faithful to that communion throughout his life, shared Jefferson’s Deist tendencies, he left little record of it. And for that matter, even Jefferson himself raised his children as Anglicans, and was a vestryman for an Anglican parish outside Charlottesville until his death (I know this personally, having attended a church in that parish for a while). These were not men determined to fight respect for religion.Yet Jefferson and Madison were jointly responsible for Virginia’s radical religious liberty laws, and clearly sought to implement them nationally in the First Amendment. It’s more than slightly odd that the descendants of their strongest allies in that fight have so decisively changed sides.

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