NRO's Katherine Jean Lopez has an interesting interview up today with Steven Waldman, an editor at BeliefNet (and author of a new book about the faith of America's founders). It provides an excellent, balanced look at how the founders conceptualized religious freedom and understood the First Amendment.
Lopez: What do Americans United for the Separation of Church and State types have most wrong?
Waldman: That the First Amendment intended to separate church and state in every nook and cranny of our land. The First Amendment was a states’ rights compromise that envisioned separation at the national level but allowed a great deal of church-state mingling at the state and local level. There’s an amazing moment during the congressional deliberations on the First Amendment when Rep. Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut complains that Madison’s proposed amendment could be “extremely harmful to the cause of religion.” How could our beloved Bill of Rights harm religion? Huntington feared it might wipe out the official state establishment in Connecticut. Madison had to reassure him that Connecticut could keep having an official state religion. Madison actually wanted the First Amendment applied to the states, but he didn’t have the votes to carry the day.
Of course over time, the states got rid of the establishments, and the 14th Amendment did attempt to apply much of the Bill of Rights to the states, and that’s how we end up with prayer-in-schools cases. But it was a very gradual process, driven more by the framers of the 14th Amendment than by the framers of the First Amendment.
And for those who read the full interview and are curious: No, I do not share Thomas Jefferson's view of God, religion, or the relationship between church and state. Just his love and respect for the yeoman farmer.