5 Brave Religious Leaders Who Fought Christian Theocracy in America

Over the years, atheists, agnostics and skeptics of organized religion have taken a lot of high-profile stands in favor of the separation of church and state. Many Jews have been active in this area as well, and these days the ranks of church-state defenders are being augmented by Pagans, Wiccans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and other religious minorities.

But we shouldn’t overlook the many members of the Christian clergy who have buttressed the church-state wall and those who still do so today. In fact, we might not have that wall at all if it weren’t for them.

With that thought in mind, here are five preachers whose support for church-state separation is beyond dispute.

1) Roger Williams: The founder of Rhode Island was an iconoclastic preacher who absolutely hated the idea of combining church and state. Williams, a Puritan minister in Massachusetts, was either exceedingly brave or exceedingly foolish (or possibly both). In one case, he went on the warpath after he got wind of the General Court’s plan to require every member of the colony to take a loyalty oath to the governor ending in the phrase, “So help me, God.” According to Williams, it was dangerous to force a man to swear a religious oath.

“A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man,” wrote Williams, because it would cause the oath-taker “to take the name of God in vain.”

This and other pro-freedom outbursts did not endear Williams to the sour theocrats of Massachusetts. By 1635 the Puritan leaders had had enough of him. The General Court found Williams guilty of “disseminating new and dangerous opinions” and banished him from the colony. Williams was ordered to return to England but fled into the wilderness. He purchased land from some Native Americans and called his settlement Providence. (In the process, he ditched the Puritans and became a Baptist – briefly. Williams remained on a spiritual quest all of his life.)

You could always rely on Williams for some powerful rhetoric. “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God,” he once declared. In his 1644 treatise, The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Williams warned against opening “a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” – a phrase that anticipated President Thomas Jefferson’s call for a “wall of separation between church and state” by more than 150 years.

Williams called for “soul liberty,” and he meant it. In his colony, all who agreed to live in peace were welcome – even those whose religious views Williams personally found distasteful. Williams was no fan of Quakers, but in Providence, members of that denomination worshipped in peace. It was far better than what happened to them in Boston, where they were sometimes hanged.

2) John Leland: This fiery Baptist cleric and friend of Thomas Jefferson's holds a unique distinction in American history: He helped smash state-established churches in three states. A native of Massachusetts, Leland relocated to Virginia where he worked alongside Jefferson and James Madison to end the state church there, mustering powerful arguments and lining up clerical allies. Years later, he returned to Massachusetts and worked for disestablishment in that state, seeing it become a reality in 1833. While living in Massachusetts, he undertook cross-border forays into Connecticut to assist forces there working to end the state church. They were successful in 1818.

Leland was a powerful orator who used his pulpit to promote religious liberty for all – and he meant everyone. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Leland insisted that even non-believers should have full rights. In a classic 1791 sermon titled The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, he asserted, “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….”

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.

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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