But what of evangelical Tea Party candidates? They didn’t fare quite as well as some had expected.
On balance, the election of 2010 reveals Americans’ discomfort with evangelical candidates who wear their faith on their sleeve, or even worse, use evangelical lingo on the campaign trail.
This was a distinction that evangelical Christians would have readily understood at the time of America’s founding. Baptists and Methodists were just emerging as a major religious force on the American landscape in 1776, and they could not necessarily expect candidates to share their faith. In some situations, this led them to cooperate with some very unusual allies, especially the nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, a notorious skeptic that one Federalist opponent called a “howling atheist.”
Jefferson was no atheist, but he did not believe in Jesus’ divinity or resurrection, either. Nevertheless, Jefferson depended heavily on evangelical support in his political career, from the passage of his 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, to his election as president in 1800. He made common cause with evangelicals in order to disestablish America’s official state denominations, many of which had badly persecuted dissenting evangelicals like the Baptists. This was the essential cause of religious liberty in Revolutionary America. Thus, Jefferson wrote his famous “wall of separation between church and state” letter in 1802 to a group of evangelical Baptists in Connecticut.
Jefferson sent that letter on New Year’s Day of 1802, a time Jefferson chose to symbolize his steadfast alliance with his evangelical friends. On New Year’s, Jefferson publicly received a prodigious gift from Baptist evangelist John Leland, a 1200-pound block of cheese, a gift from the admiring Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts (which, like Connecticut, still had an official tax-supported church). The newspapers called it the “mammoth cheese.” Then, that Sunday, Leland preached before a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives chambers, with Jefferson in attendance. Jefferson’s presence at Leland’s sermon indicates that he never understood separation of church and state to mean outright secularism, or government hostility to religion. He and the Baptists believed in real religious liberty, yet they honored America’s religious vitality. The Baptists had found their great political champion in Jefferson, who was both a heretic and a true friend of religious freedom.
Like the man says, read the whole thing.