March 2007 Church & State | Editorial

Mr. President, You’re No John Leland

John Leland was not the kind of preacher who would back a government-sponsored “faith-based” initiative.

 “Be always jealous of your liberty, your rights,” the Baptist minister once advised. “Nip the first bud of intrusion on your Constitution…. Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny – the worst of despotism.”

Leland also once said, with characteristic bluntness, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”

A contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Leland spent his life fighting for meaningful religious liberty – not just for members of his own denomination but for all Americans. Leland understood that only a decent distance between church and state could guarantee that right.

Given Leland’s strong views, it is the height of irony that the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a group of individuals who long ago abandoned their denomination’s historic stand in favor of church-state separation, gives out something called the “John Leland Religious Liberty Award.”

This year’s choice of recipient says a lot about how far the SBC has strayed from its roots: During a Jan. 29 ceremony, Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission presented the award to President George W. Bush.

That’s right. An award named for one of the greatest theological advocates of church-state separation in American history was given to the man who has done more to bring religion and government into partnership than any modern president.

Let’s be clear about this: If Leland were alive today, there is no way he would back Bush’s efforts to divert millions in taxpayer funds to religious groups or the president’s frequent schemes to make social policy conform to the demands of far-right evangelical extremists.

Rather, Leland would stand up and blast the president for it. Leland, after all, once warned his co-religionists of the “mischievous dagger” of government assistance and advised people to be wary of politicians who play the religion card.

Leland performed an important role in securing religious liberty in Virginia, working alongside Jefferson and Madison and rallying supportive clergy. Years later, he moved back to his native Massachusetts and helped end the cozy relationship between church and state there.

Giving President Bush an award named after Leland only serves to mock the legacy of this great preacher. Leland died in 1841 and is buried in Cheshire, Mass. One can’t help but think that he must be turning over in his grave.