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.
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).
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
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.
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?
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?