Friday, March 10


Beliefnet editor-in-chief Steven Waldman has written an essay pointing out that, unlike most of their modern counterparts (think James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell), 18th century American evangelicals were firmly supportive of the separation of church and state. Every progressive should read and commit it to memory in order to refute the claims of the Sean Hannitys, Laura Ingrahams and Bill Bennetts.

Waldman writes about the Baptist traditions I was raised on. Read the words on John Leland's headstone. "Elder John Leland, 174-1841, who labored sixty-seven years to promote piety and to vindicate the civil and religious rights of men." I grieve for the loss of that spirit.

In state after state, when colonists and Americans met to debate the relationship between God and government, it was the proto-evangelica1s who pushed the more radical view that church and state should be kept far apart. Both secular liberals who sneer at the idea that evangelicals could ever be a positive influence in politics and Christian conservatives who want to knock down the “wall” should take note: It was the 18th-century evangelicals who provided the political shock troops for Jefferson and Madison in their efforts to keep government from strong involvement with religion. Modern evangelicals are certainly free to take a different course, but they should realize that in doing so they have dramatically departed from the tradition of their spiritual forefathers.
In other words, the Founding Fathers were divided on separation of church and state—but most of the evangelicals weren't. They overwhelmingly sided with Jefferson and Madison.
Today's Christian conservatives often note that Jefferson's famous line declaring that the first amendment had created “a wall separating church and state” was not in the Constitution but in a private letter. But in that letter, Jefferson was responding to one sent to him by a group of Baptists in Danbury, Conn. We usually read Jefferson's side of that exchange. It's worth re-reading what the Danbury Baptists had to say because it reminds us that for the 18th-century evangelicals, the separation of church and state was not only required by the practicalities of their minority status, but was also demanded by God. “Religions is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals,” the Baptists wrote, warning that government “dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehova and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.” Government had no business meddling in the affairs of the soul, where there is only one Ruler.

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