In 1786, in Richmond, the Virginia legislature approved a religious freedom clause for that state’s constitution which became the model for the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

So it was disappointing, aggravating and frustrating to sit in my hotel room in that same city of Richmond on the morning of September 12 and read Andrea Stone’s article in the USA Today newspaper entitled “Poll: Founders Intended Christian USA.”

“I don’t get it,” I said to myself. “Why do so many people have such a poor grasp of history? Don’t they understand that the founders of our country had many blind spots (slavery, women’s rights) but they clearly understood that there was grave danger in giving privilege, status or power to any single religion.”

The article before me read “Most Americans believe the nation’s founders wrote Christianity into the Constitution, and people are less likely to say freedom to worship covers religious groups they consider extreme, a poll out today finds.”

The survey measuring attitudes toward freedom of religion, speech and the press found that 55 percent believe erroneously that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. In the survey, which is conducted annually by the First Amendment Center, a non-partisan educational group, three out of four people who identify themselves as evangelical or Republican believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. About half of Democrats and independents do.

Clearly, there is some inaccurate information being circulated and certainly there is some misinformation being propagated. Some simple re-statement of the central facts seems to be in order. I plead with you; if you have friends or family members who tell you that they heard in their church that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, challenge this notion.

Some of the first Europeans who came to what became the United States were seeking to escape religious persecution. Indeed the vision of a nation that was a moral and spiritual “beacon on a hill” was important to many, and the Declaration of Independence claims that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Yet, when it came time to write a Constitution, the framers of that document rejected any reference to God and accepted a First Amendment which reads (in part) “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founders recognized that religion mattered. They also recognized that it mattered that they refrain from giving any religion special rights, privileges or mention.

As a Baptist I am committed to historical accuracy in this regard because the concept of freedom of religion and conscience became one of the central values of our nation in part because Baptists were willing to articulate it, advocate for it and advance it. In a major address entitled “In Search of Baptists” delivered in Washington D.C. this summer Dr. Randall Balmer, professor of American Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University noted the well known contributions to religious freedom of Baptists Roger Williams of Rhode Island and Isaac Backus on John Leland of Virginia.

He also quoted a letter written by the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut to Thomas Jefferson in 1801. That association wrote to the President complaining that the magistrates in Connecticut were treating religious freedom as a favor to be granted rather than a right to be guaranteed. “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty. Religion is at all times and places is a matter between God and individuals.” In response to the Connecticut Baptists Jefferson agreed with their concerns, noted the wording of the First Amendment and added that the purpose of the First Amendment was the “building of a wall of separation between church and state.”

We need to respect our history; we need teach it with integrity; we need to understand that rightly interpreted the U.S. Constitution protects both church and state.