In Response To ... Franklin Graham
           on Separation of Church and State












  More Writings by Bruce Gourley 


Note: This essay first appeared in the January 2006 Baptist Studies Bulletin. It was also reprinted in the January 2006 edition of Report from the Capital, published by the Baptist Joint Committee.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, leading Baptist evangelist John Leland insisted that church and state should be kept completely separate.  He denounced government aid to religion as nothing more than a “mischievous dagger” that polluted the gospel and sullied the church; he even denounced tax exemptions for ministers. 

Some 200 years later, following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf states, another leading Baptist evangelist tepidly declared, “I support, to a degree, the separation of church and state .… But at times of disaster, at times of national tragedy, government must reach over the wall of separation …. While the vast majority of FEMA’s trailers site unoccupied, faith-based relief organizations are struggling to acquire trailers for families ready to move in. The trailer situation is an example of a fundamental truth: Government is not the most efficient provider of compassion and care.”  Franklin Graham went on to insist that the United States government should “Entrust some of these billions of [relief] dollars into their [the churches] hands.” (USA TODAY, November 28, 2005).

Certain clergy, Leland warned two centuries ago, were prone to try to persuade the government officials that religious favoritism could be “advantageous to the state.”  Why did the clergy make this argument?  “Chiefly covetousness, to get money,” Leland declared.

One of the most astounding betrayals in modern religious history is the legion of contemporary Baptists who not only have vigorously denounced and berated their own faith heritage of full religious liberty for all and complete separation of church and state, but have gone so far as to emulate the 17th and 18th century establishment clergy in colonial America whose persecution of Baptists birthed Baptists’ long and arduous journey to ensure full religious liberty and complete separation of church and state in the federal constitution.

Leland’s prophetic words do not merely condemn Franklin Graham’s call to lower the wall of separation of church and state so that the government can more easily shovel taxpayers’ money to churches, they also sound a warning to all contemporary Baptists in America.  Leland’s warnings against clergy accepting government tax exemptions are rarely heeded by Baptists of any theological persuasions.  The only instance I know of a local Baptist church today refusing tax exempt status is First Baptist Auburn, Alabama who several years ago began paying property tax to the government.  And I have yet to personally hear a single Baptist minister denounce ministerial tax breaks.

Placed in this perspective, Franklin Graham’s call to lower the wall of separation of church and state under special circumstances is not overly surprising after all.  Baptist clergy of recent decades have become accustomed to being shown religious favoritism from the government. Why should some not now expect even greater deference from the government on religious grounds?  Is Franklin Graham’s request for “some of these billions of dollars” not a reflection of the favoritism we are certain we deserve as ministers whose clerical role is “advantageous” to state and society?

John Leland understood that an attitude of expected favoritism from the state, in any form, trivializes the gospel and cheapens the Church.  Yet one could argue that virtually all contemporary Baptists (and most Christians) in America today expect some form of favoritism from the government by virtue of their faith, whether it be government enforcement of a particular brand of morality, the teaching of certain religious views in our nation’s schools, the public display of a portion of our faith’s sacred text, or an exemption from taxes for clergy and church.

In the end, although Franklin Graham is to be admonished for his blatant demand of large-scale favoritism from the state, most all Christians today, John Leland would likely argue, are guilty of quietly violating the principle of separation either for personal gain or the benefit of their local church.

Is it already too late to preserve the complete separation of church and state in America?