“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.” John Leland, Virginia Baptist and Pioneer of Religious & Civil Liberties
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The whole issue of religious liberty and the right to free expression has once again come to the fore in the wake of the Obergfell v. Hodges ruling and the fairly pathetic attempt of Kim Davis and her lawyers to stop gay marriage in Rowan County Kentucky. I call the attempt pathetic because it flies in the face of the real champions of religious liberty in the United States. One of these early proponents of religious liberty and freedom in the United States was the Virginia Baptist pastor, John Leland.
Sadly, many American Christians either have never heard of him. Likewise, if they have heard of him, as the great pontificator, Mike Huckabee should have in his brief tenure as a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; they seem to have ignored his warnings about state religion. I guess that problems in his church history and Baptist history classes were a big reason that he left seminary. Ideologues like the Huckster didn’t last at Southwestern, at least until the fundamentalist takeover in 1994 that helped destroy the academic and scholarly reputation of that once fine school, but I digress….
Leland was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and without him it is unlikely that the First Amendment of the Constitution would have mentioned religious faith. Leland had a very personal interest in this as during the 1780s the Anglican Church in Virginia was attempting to again become the official state religion. Anglicans, with the help of local authorities were attacking Baptist congregations and even resorting to physical violence. In defiance of the Anglicans, Leland wrote:
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
There is a form of religion and indeed the “Christian” faith that is toxic and if not treated leads to the spiritual and sometimes the physical and emotional death of the infected person.
There is a nationalized version of this supposedly Christian faith in the Untied Stats today. It is a bastardized version of the Christian faith overlaid with the thin veneer of an equally bastardized version of American history. Its purveyors are quite popular in the world of “conservative” American Evangelicalism and Catholicism.
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and chief Nuremberg war crimes trials prosecutor warned us about people like them over a half-century ago. Jackson wrote, “[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.”
Pat Robertson, evangelist and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network is an example of what Leland and Jackson warned us about. Robertson said on his program that “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense, I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.” — Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, January 14, 1991. The late David Chilton was another. He wrote: “We believe that institutionally Christianity should be the official religion of the country, that its laws should be specifically Christian”
It is quite fascinating when you look at it. This faith is a combination of a selective reading of American history, Christian teaching and Biblical interpretation that mixes and matches a wide variety of mutually conflicting and contradictory traditions. This Toxic “faith” if you can call it that; is based on a reading of American and Western History, which negates, marginalizes or willingly distorts the views or contributions of those who they disagree. It does not matter of their opponents are not Christians, or were Christians, including Baptists like John Leland and Roger Williams. Due to their experiences of religious persecution, Williams and Leland refused to buy into any form of state sanctioned religion.
I find it interesting that Conservative Icon and champion of limited government Barry Goldwater had great reservations about those that sought to establish the superiority of any religion. Goldwater said on the Senate floor: “The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent.”
The leaders of this new and quasi “Christian faith” are many and include some of the most popular religious leaders in the United States such as Pat Robertson, the pseudo-historian David Barton, James Robison, Gary North, Bryan Fischer, James Dobson, Gary Bauer Phyllis Schafley and a host of others. For them the Gospel has been equated with government legislation of supposedly “Christian” values; which conveniently are defined by their political agenda, often in complete contradiction to the Gospel and to nearly 2000 years of Christian experience. North, one of the most eloquent expositors of the Dominionist movement wrote:
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”
That is quite a statement and those who think that they can co-opt people like North, Robertson or others are quite mistaken. Goldwater realized this. What is fascinating to me is to watch these men and women advocate religious and political positions in regard to Church-State relations that completely opposite of what early American Christian and non-Christian civil libertarians imagined when our country was founded. Positions that quite often are at odds with even the historical tenants of their own faith. Their only claim to innocence can be because not a one of them have any training in history and often are even worse when it comes to their understanding of the Christian tradition, which did not begin in and will not end in the United States.
In this confused and often hateful “faith” we see men and women who hate centralized government but extol a centralized religion. I was talking with a friend who is adamantly opposed to a powerful Federal Government but extols the perfection of the centralized bureaucracy of his Roman Catholic Faith. He could not see the contradiction. I watch others who extol an almost Libertarian understanding of the government and the Constitution who supposedly in their religious tradition are from the “Free Church” who now advocate the supremacy of the Church over the State and in doing so their particular and limited understanding of Church over that of the Church Universal.
In this confused and contradictory setting there are Catholics espousing political views that are in direct opposition to the understanding of government supported by the Magisterium of the Church. There are Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants that mix and match the untenable and contradictory beliefs of Dominionism and Millennialism which involve on one hand the takeover of earthly power by the Church and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God and the understanding that earthly power is ultimately under the dominion of Satan and must be overcome by the Second Coming of Christ.
“These establishments metamorphose the church into a creature, and religion into a principle of state, which has a natural tendency to make men conclude that Bible religion is nothing but a trick of state.”
Leland was one of the most important persons in regards to the relationship of the Christian Churches to the American Government. He was a champion of the religious liberty enshrined in the Bill of Rights and helped influence both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. He noted in 1791:
“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.” John Leland, “Right of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable By The Law”
When the adherents of a faith, any faith, but especially the Christian faith enlist the government to enforce their understanding of faith they introduce a toxicity that is eventually fatal when consumed and acted on.
I think that much of what we are witnessing today is much more the product of fear mongering preachers that see opportunity in their political alliances and that are willing to reduce the Gospel to a number of “Christian values” in order to achieve a political end; even if that end is ultimately destructive to the Church and to the Gospel.
The message of the Apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth was this: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:18-19 NRSV)
The early church thrived when it had no early power. It thrived when it was persecuted and when the Roman government openly supported almost every religion but it. However, once it became powerful and worldly it became ensnared in affairs far from that simple message of reconciliation.
It was in this country that the various sects of the Christian faith had the opportunity to make a new start, unencumbered by the trappings of power. But instead, like those that came before us, the toxin of power has all too often seduced us. John Leland understood this and fought to ensure that all people of faith were free and unencumbered by state supported religion. He wrote:
“The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils.”
Leland’s friend James Madison wrote to Edward Everett toward the end of his life:
“The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law; that rival sects, with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals; that if new sects arise with absurd opinions or over-heated imaginations, the proper remedies lie in time, forbearance, and example; that a legal establishment of religion without a toleration could not be thought of, and with a toleration, is no security for and animosity; and, finally, that these opinions are supported by experience, which has shewn that every relaxation of the alliance between law and religion, from the partial example of Holland to the consummation in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, &c., has been found as safe in practice as it is sound in theory. Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence it was left, with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change, and particularly in the sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than that the law is not necessary to the support of religion” (Letter to Edward Everett, Montpellier, March 18, 1823).
That is the antidote to the toxic faith embodied in the politically motivated Christian Right. It stands against any idea of a state sanction or religion or a religion that like in Saudi Arabia or Iran controls the state. It stands in opposition to the beliefs of so many “Christian” religious leaders work to ensure that they control the powers of government. Attempts that try to proclaim their superiority above even the ultimate message of the Gospel that proclaims, “for God so loved the world….”
By the way there are always results. The Puritans who many extoll were some of the most intolerant of dissenters of any group that has every held the reigns of power over the state and religion ever known in this country. Their victims included Quakers as well as American Indian converts to Christianity. The picture below of the Puritans hanging Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony should give pause to anyone who thinks that such actions are not possible today should any religion gain control of political power.
3 responses to “Exploding the Myth of Christian America”
Great article. I didn’t know anything about Leland except from your blog.
He is a fascinating person, learned about him at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before the Fundy takeover
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