Thursday, July 5, 2012

Opposing the Marriage of Church and State

Since this is July 5, most of the Fourth of July celebration is over for another year. But consider now an exemplary Independence Day oration given 210 years ago today. It is a speech that has considerable relevance to us in this election year of 2012.
That oration given on July 5, 1802, was by John Leland, who was born in Massachusetts and died there in 1841 at the age of 86. As a young man in 1775, Leland became a Baptist. Two years later he moved to Virginia and served for fourteen years as a minister in that state where Baptists were a minority group.
Some Baptist ministers in Virginia were even imprisoned because of their unwillingness to abide by the religious beliefs and practices of the majority. Partly for that reason, Leland put pressure on James Madison to amend the Constitution with a bill of rights, including an amendment guaranteeing religious freedom for all.
Madison, who had been one of the leading members of the Constitutional Convention and later became known as “the father of the American Constitution,” was working hard at that time trying to get the U.S. Constitution ratified by the state of Virginia.
Five miles east of Orange, Virginia, there is a marker beside “Constitution Highway” commemorating the spot where Leland and Madison held a significant discussion in 1788. (A picture of that marker is at this link.) Partly because of that meeting, Leland mustered Baptist support and Virginia did ratify the Constitution. Then, keeping his part of the bargain, Madison was instrumental in getting the Bill of Rights passed in 1791. (I also wrote about that here.)
In “The Virginia Chronicle,” published in 1790, Leland wrote about his idea of religious freedom: The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever,” he declares. Then later in the same document he proclaims, “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 [Muslims], Pagans and Christians” (The Writings of John Leland, 1845, pp. 107, 118).
In 1792, Leland moved back to Massachusetts and ten years later, on July 5, 1802, he delivered the speech that is known and quoted to this day. (It can be found in an Internet collection of famous Independence Day orations.)
In that speech Leland said, “Heaven forbids the . . . marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it” (The Writings, p. 267).
In the next four months, we will be engulfed by vigorous and contentious political campaigning. Some candidates, and their avid supporters, will use, or misuse, religious arguments in seeking their election or the defeat of their opponents.
For the sake of the American people, especially for those citizens who belong to minority ethnic or religious groups, as well as for the sake of the “pure religion” that Rev. Leland referred to, let’s consider well his momentous words spoken 210 years ago today in commemoration of Independence Day.


  1. Thanks for remembering one of the great Baptists who defended church state separation. I am reading a little book I picked up at Rainy Day Books called "The Separation of Church and State. It's a compilation of writings of the founders on the subject put together by Forrest Church and published in 2004 by Beacon Press, Boston.

    In it he devotes a chapter to Leland and the two pamphlets he authored after writing the 1790 document cited above.

    Thanks for the good word (and Leland's good word)as we gear up for November

  2. Yes, Virginia! The emperor really doesn't have any clothes on! On the other hand, do not expect loud praise for your sound empirical observation; impeccable logic; and exercise of your 1st Amendment rights...

    Maybe this will stimulate me to find/list the OT passages which condemn what is today called "civil religion."

    More thoughts later. Am preparing to do a bit of traveling - and be done prior to the forecast near 100 temp today. NOT common to NE WI!

  3. A local Thinking Friend who is a retired Baptist pastor sent this comment by e-mail:

    "Thank God for men like John Leland! What wisdom and ability to speak. He stated what Baptists have believed and supported for years. He would be appalled by what some are saying today. Put me down as a John Leland Baptist!"

  4. My esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky sent this comment earlier today:

    "Leland would not need to alter much to speak directly to our political situation today, Leroy. That you for sharing this profound statement."

  5. There are rumblings from some conservative groups that make much of the fact that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution. In 2006, Michelle Bachmann warned a Christian group that public schools "are teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that is a myth." The rationale of this thinking leads to the belief that the merger of the two is permitted and desirable (if it's their religion), provided there's no sanction of a particular denomination. It's my hope that this way of thinking will remain an extreme minority.

    John Adams signed the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, which reassured that Muslim nation that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." The USA was thus able to thus sign a treaty with the Islamic Barbary pirates because, unlike the European countries at the time, the American government had no official state religion.

    1. Clif, thanks for your pertinent comments, and thanks also for mentioning the "Treaty with Tripoli," which I cite in my book "Fed Up with Fundamentalism," pp. 153-4.

  6. Thinking Friend Truett Baker of Arizona wrote,

    "As usual, I enjoyed your blog on church-state relations. That subject is a hobby of mine as you know, and the subject of one of my books, “Church-State Cooperation Without Domination.” The details of the quid pro quo you describe between Leland and Madison serve to point out the crafty statesmanship of the two gentlemen. Freedom-loving people in America owe a lot to both men."

  7. I had an interesting juxtaposition of Independence Day talks this year as on the 4th my father dug out his sermon from the last time the 4th was on Sunday, and now Leroy is reviewing Leland's oration. My father compared the American vision of the "City on the Hill" with the experience he had as a host of Russian businessmen visiting America in a Rotary Club exchange after the fall of the USSR. The Russians were impressed with the American work ethic, which they saw as embodied in American churches. One said that he saw a need for people to believe in God, even as he saw no way for an educated person to do it. So then my father waxed eloquent on the City on the Hill.

    Well, after reading Leroy's blog, now I am thinking about the church-state implications of the City on the Hill, and am struck that perhaps we have been mislead by being too faithful to the exact wording of that title. What if we said, "Community on the Hill" instead? I then realized my town has two of them, a church prominently displayed on the hill on one side of town, and William Jewell College on the other. There are such Communities on the Hill all over America, and much of the rest of the world. Not to mention communities on symbolic hills. And very few of them are inherently a threat to the separation of church and state.

    Now since my father is a minister in the church now known as The Community of Christ, I suppose I should circle back to give him some additional indirect credit there, too, for my Community on the Hill thoughts.

    1. Thanks, as always, for the meaty comments, Craig. Perhaps to expand your theme a bit, some reference could be made to MLK Jr.'s, emphasis on the beloved community.

  8. I really appreciate all that I've read! Some perspectives are new to me and that is always stimulating. A few more thoughts:

    Religion, matters of faith, cannot be separated from politics.

    The institutions of religion and the institutions of the state should be ultimately free standing but must find ways to accommodate where public-private interests overlap. (The no-brainers are matters of public safety - police/fire - as they relate to church property or suspected criminal behavior within religious organizations.) (Probably the most active current - free exercise - issue here is the use of peyote by The Native American Church.) I have no problem, in theory, with public-private partnerships - as long as the accounting is under strict control - when interests are parallel; as in services to disaster victims, the poor, and transients.

    A favorite example of that latter is my, one male, cousin. He is a ham radio expert and his local club (Indianapolis, IN) works with the Salvation Army to set up emergency communications in communities wrecked by tornadoes.

    On a more personal level: I wonder about the words of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Military Oath - for persons whose ultimate allegiance is to Christ.... As I recall, Baptists in the years surrounding the creation of our republic, were very pure on this issue; or at least perceived by enough outside to cause concern. It could very well be that many Baptists were as suspicious of aligning with the public institutions of this land as they were of allegiance to the British throne.

    I am very interested in others' thoughts on these matters!