In writing my new book, Founding Faith, I was struck by two things of possible importance to today's religious progressives.
First, the 18th century evangelicals had a very different approach to religious freedom than many of their 21st century descendents. They were crucial advocates for separation of church and state. This ought to be a challenge to both modern liberal secularists who assume that evangelicals are awlays on the side of tyranny, and for religious conservatives who have disowned the arguments of their ancestors. If not for evangelicals, we wouldn't have religious freedom.
Second, the Founders mostly assess religion through the prism of one question: does it promote good behavior? Though each of the Founders I studied in Founding Faith (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison) started at different religious places, they ended up at the end of their lives whittling their creeds down to a few simple items:
Benjamin Franklin: "That the most acceptable service we can render to [God], is doing good to his other children."
John Adams: "I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no change in my moral or religious creed, which has for 50 or 60 years been contained in four short words: 'Be just and good.'"
Thomas Jefferson: "1) That there is one only God, and he all-perfect. 2) That there is a future state of rewards and punishments. 3) That to love God with all thy heart and they neighbor as theyself, is the sum of religion." (Click here for an online version of the Jefferson Bible that shows how he cut out the miracles from the Bible, and highlighted the moral teachings.)
George Washington: "In politics, as in religion, my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves, and to exact it from others; meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved. If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant and happy." (Washington letter to James Anderson, December 25, 1795, as quoted in Chadwick, p. 487.)
It's not accurate to say these men were not religious. I don't believe it's even accurate to say they were Deists, since most of them believed in a God that intervened in history and in their lives. But it is clear that they judged the success of religion by whether it inculcated good behavior, and created good citizens.
Steven Waldman is editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.