5 Brave Religious Leaders Who Fought Christian Theocracy in America
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A great admirer of the free-thinking Jefferson, Leland in 1801 persuaded members of his church to create a “mammoth cheese” for the president. A reported 900 cows contributed milk to the cheese wheel, which was six feet in diameter, weighed more than half a ton and was inscribed with the words, “REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.” Leland spent weeks transporting the cheese from Massachusetts to Washington, presenting it to Jefferson on Jan. 1, 1802.
Leland admired Jefferson’s refusal to mix religion and government. He warned his congregants to be wary of political candidates who wore their faith on their sleeves. “Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion in choosing representatives,” he observed. “It is electioneering intrigue. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes.”
Other great Leland quotes include: “Persecution, like a lion, tears the saints to death, but leaves Christianity pure; state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints but corrupts Christianity” and “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...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.”
3) Isaac Backus: Would you be willing to go to prison for your right of conscience? Isaac Backus was. A resident of Connecticut, Backus was a colonial-era Congregationalist minister who grew weary of that denomination’s official standing with the state. When church leaders ignored his call for disestablishment, Backus jumped ship to the Baptists.
Backus refused to pay the state’s church tax of five pounds. He was repeatedly threatened with arrest and saw members of his own family tossed in jail for refusing to pony up. According to some accounts, Backus was himself arrested and briefly imprisoned.
In 1773, Backus penned An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day in which he asked the pointed question, “Now who can hear Christ declare that his kingdom is, not of this world, and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him?”
Backus moved to Massachusetts in 1748 and protested the church-state union there. He collected accounts of imprisoned Baptists in Massachusetts and never stopped hectoring civil authorities to sever its ties to the Congregational Church. In 1779 and 1780 he argued strongly against retaining provisions in the Massachusetts Constitution that protected the state church. Backus died in 1806 and did not live to see the end of the established church in that state but scholars don’t doubt that his activism played a key role in bringing about disestablishment.
Even as he contended for religious liberty, Backus traveled widely spreading his faith to willing ears. Backus was devout, but he was also convinced that true religion was best spread through voluntary channels. The government, he believed, was fallible and capable of making the wrong decision in matters of theology.
Backus once observed, referring to two fourth-century Roman emperors, one Christian and the other Pagan, “First they moved Constantine, a secular prince, to draw his sword against heretics; but as all earthly states are changeable, the same sword that Constantine drew against heretics, Julian turned against the orthodox.”
4) Martin Luther King Jr: King will always be best known for his leadership of the civil rights movement. His support for church-state separation is less well known but important.
King was an advocate of family planning at a time when it was illegal in many states for even married couples to buy artificial contraceptives. In taking this position, King put himself at odds with powerful, conservative religious groups.