Back in the 1980s, Religious Right groups frequently spread conspiracy theories about “secular humanism.” Members of this secretive, worldwide cabal, we were told, had seized control of educational institutions, the media and the government in the United States.
Colonial-era Baptist minister John Leland was a devout Christian, but he was no bigot.
In an essay titled “The Virginia Chronicle” (1790), Leland attacked antiquated laws in the Old Dominion that limited public office to certain types of Christians.
“If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia,” observed Leland, “let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God. Be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.”
When I began working for Americans United in 1987, one thing confused me: Why were there so many Southern Baptists hanging around?
Southern Baptists were the enemy – or so I thought. After all, they were extremely conservative and always advocating things like school prayer amendments and anti-LGBT legislation.
Nothing stokes the ire of my soul more than political blowhards and mouthpieces of the Religious Right who blatantly misrepresent millions of people of faith when they piously proclaim the evils of marriage equality in America.
Let me be perfectly clear: I am a Christian and have been since officially proclaiming so at age 10 in the oldest Baptist church in Charleston, S.C. Baptist DNA runs through my veins as the names of Roger Williams, John Leland and Walter Rauschenbusch are permanently etched into my personal and theological psyche.
OK, now we’ve done it. Those of us who advocate things like separation of church and state, secular government, LGBT rights and self-determination when it comes to issues of sexuality have really torqued off the Religious Right – so much so that some of them are thinking of going into exile.
Editor’s Note: Today is the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer. “The Wall of Separation” is pleased to offer this guest post by James C. Nelson, a retired justice of the Montana Supreme Court. Nelson was appointed to the court by Gov. Marc Racicot in 1993 and was reelected to the position three times, serving until his retirement in 2013.
When the Religious Right started to become a prominent force in American politics in the late 1970s, its advocates had a major impact on the country’s largest Protestant denomination: the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Younger readers may be surprised to read that the SBC, which claims 16 million members, used to be fairly moderate on social issues. It strongly supported the separation of church and state, citing historical Baptist leaders like John Leland and Isaac Backus.
Jan. 16 is National Religious Freedom Day.
The day was created by Congress in 1993, and every year the president issues a proclamation. (The 2011 proclamation hasn’t been released yet, but you can read the 2010 one here.) The day is designed to commemorate the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786.
Poor John Leland. He must be spinning like a top in his grave in Cheshire Cemetery in Cheshire, Mass.
You may not know Elder Leland, but you ought to. He was a Baptist preacher and great stalwart of civil and religious liberty in our nation’s founding period. An ardent ally and supporter of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, he railed against government meddling in matters of faith and demanded a complete separation of religion and government.