Steven Waldman reminds us that evangelicals sided with Jefferson, Madison, and other opponents of established religion in the Founding Era and in the early Republic. I cant quarrel with him as far as he goes. There is a strong separationist strain, especially in the Baptist tradition, which is where much (but not quite all) of his evidence comes from. Whats more, some of the old arguments still have some significant resonance, especially when one speaks of shekels and shackles.
But I wonder if the old arguments didnt take place against the backdrop of a confidence in a broadly Protestant culture, which would be embodied in public schools, for example. Thus the Northwest Ordinance takes for granted that religion would be taught in public schools. And public schools, where they existed throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, were, in effect, non-denominational Protestant schools. I would be interested to see if Waldman has any evidence that evangelicals explicitly disapproved of such schools, and dissociated themselves from them. Id be surprised if there is any.
Given the secularized state of public schools today, not to mention the overall change in the public culture, then (if my surmise is correct) its not at all surprising that many contemporary evangelicals have opinions that differ from those of their forebears. What might have been an appropriate prudential calculation in 1789 or 1804 might not be an appropriate prudential calculation in 2006.