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5 Brave Religious Leaders Who Fought Christian Theocracy in America

We shouldn’t overlook members of the Christian clergy who have buttressed the church-state wall.

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When the Supreme Court struck down mandatory, coercive programs of prayer and Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and ’63, many members of the clergy went ballistic. King was not among them. In a January 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, King not only backed what the court did, he noted that his frequent nemesis, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, stood on the other side.

“I endorse it. I think it was correct,” King said. “Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.”

King also insisted that religion and science need not fight. And, in one of his most famous passages, King reminded Americans of the different roles religion and government play in society.

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,” King observed. “It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

5) J.M. Dawson: To a lot of people today, the term “Southern Baptist minister” conjures up an image of a red-faced cleric bashing gays, demanding prayer in schools and insisting that dinosaurs traveled on Noah’s Ark.

It was not always so. Fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s and adopted a series of ultra-conservative views on “culture war” issues. Before that, Baptists were often strong advocates of religious liberty supported by a high, firm church-state wall. Many of their clergy regularly stood as watchmen on that wall. J.M. Dawson was one of them.

Dawson, who pastored several Baptist churches in Texas in the early part of the 20th century, championed religious liberty all of his life. Driven by his strong belief that no American should be taxed to pay for religion, he opposed public funding of religious schools and helped found Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In 1945, Dawson lobbied the newly formed United Nations to include religious liberty as a basic human right in its foundational charter. He led the effort to block President Harry Truman’s plan to appoint a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, killing the plan so solidly that it took 40 years before President Ronald W. Reagan dared resurrect it. (Added bonus: While leading a church in Waco, Dawson prodded pastors to adopt racial reconciliation and blasted the Ku Klux Klan from the pulpit – a stand that won him few fans in 1916.)

Today, Baylor University houses the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies. Thanks to Dawson’s vision, moderate Southern Baptist remain active and continue to challenge the fundamentalists by embracing the traditional Baptist principle of support for the church-state wall. In Washington, they are led by the Rev. Brent Walker and the Rev. James M. Dunn at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

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Unquestionably, secularists have done great work standing up for the church-state wall and the complete religious and philosophical freedom it brings us. But they should never forget their allies in the clergy. Without them, that wall might be missing a considerable number of bricks.

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