WACO, Texas —

Was America founded as a Christian nation? This is one of the most heated historical debates in America today. On one side of the debate, you have traditional Christians who say the Founders were Christians, and that they built the nation on principles of faith. On the other, you have secularists who argue that the Founders were deistic doubters, if not outright atheists, and who see the Founding as an Enlightenment-inspired, nonreligious event.

A deeper look shows that the role of faith in the Founding was more complicated than this politicized debate suggests. One of the greatest ironies in the Founding period was that the people who pushed hardest for the separation of church and state were evangelical Christians. To them, state support for churches (almost all the colonies had a denomination established by law) led to religious corruption and the persecution of dissenters.

Nowhere was the evangelical attack against state churches more vehement than in Virginia. From the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the Anglican Church (the Church of England) had been the official denomination of the colony. The situation changed dramatically in the 1740s, when the Great Awakening began to rumble through Virginia, led first by Presbyterians, then Baptists. Thousands of Americans found their faith renewed, or stirred for the first time, as traveling revivalists spoke of God's love and mercy for sinners.

Revivalists criticized Anglican parsons for lifeless preaching and for failing to recognize the prodigious work of God going on around them. Presbyterian dissenters were relatively polite, simply arguing that the government should afford them toleration. They complied with procedures to procure special licenses to preach. The Baptists, by contrast, were utterly belligerent. They scoffed at licenses and held services — and outdoor baptisms — wherever they saw fit. By the late 1760s, Baptist churches were growing so fast that Virginia authorities unleashed a storm of persecution on them.

Young patriot leaders such as James Madison — who grew up a traditional Anglican but whose spiritual views became more liberal over time — deplored the persecution of the Baptists, and became passionate about the cause of religious liberty. Despite Baptist demands, the state did not disestablish the Anglican Church until after the war. In 1784, leading patriot Patrick Henry proposed that instead of all religious taxes going to support the Anglican Church, people should be able to choose the church that would receive their religious taxes. But to Madison and the evangelicals, this was unacceptable. They wanted the government to stop financially supporting churches, and argued that under disestablishment and full religious freedom, churches would flourish, not fade.

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). 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 was the author 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. Their partnership worked 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.

Thomas S. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University and is senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion.