Reprinted from Christianity Today Online
Much attention has been paid to the idea that evangelical Christians are, politically, in motion. Only 29 percent of “born-again” Christians now say they support Republicans, compared to 62 percent in 2004, according to Barna Research. Among those who participated in the Republican primaries, many went for John McCain, who once called certain Christian leaders “agents of intolerance.” Many younger evangelicals are stressing issues like the environment and poverty, and, as Christianity Today readers know better than most, a new generation of evangelical leaders has emphasized different styles and modes of worship.
But while many Christians re-assess current alliances, practices, and beliefs, one characteristic relatively unchanged: their sense of history. A recent Beliefnet survey found that more than 70 percent of conservative evangelicals believe the Constitution created a Christian state. Whether it’s prayer in schools or the Ten Commandments in courthouses, many evangelicals still believe that being a good Christian means advocating for a stronger government role in promoting religion.
I’d like to respectfully suggest that the important dialogue within the evangelical community would be enriched if it were to more boldly re-examine its historical roots. What it would find is that evangelicals of the founding era had very different attitudes about the separation of church and state than many of their modern counterparts. In fact, we would not have religious freedom or the separation of church and state without a key alliance between heroic evangelicals and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
In 1784, Virginia’s leading politician, Patrick Henry, proposed taxing citizens to sustain and support churches. This was a liberal bill, as these things went. The proceeds of the “assessment” could benefit any church, not just the dominant church. But a young James Madison opposed the idea — which he called an “establishment” — on the grounds that it would, by entangling the state with the church, actually harm religion. Madison eventually won, in large part because of support from Virginia’s Baptists. Even though tax support was non-coercive and could directly benefit the Baptists, one Baptist petition stated that the measure “departed from the Spirit of the Gospel and from the bill of Rights.” Responding to the argument that the assessment would help battle the spread of heretical views like deism, the petition declared that virtuous religions would win in a marketplace of faith: “Let their Doctrines be scriptural and their lives Holy, then shall Religion beam forth as the sun and Deism shall be put to open shame.”
The Baptists further argued that Henry’s approach ignored an important lesson from Christian history: that the greatest flowering of Christianity occurs without government support. During its first few hundred years, Christianity was oppressed, yet “the Excellent Purity of its Precepts and the unblamable behaviour of its Ministers made its way thro all opposition,” one petition declared. After Constantine endorsed Christianity, persecution subsided but “how soon was the Church Over run with Error and Immorality.” Another Baptist treatise projected how seemingly beneficial government support could lead to constraint: because money would be collected through the tax system, the “Sheriffs, County Courts and public Treasury are all to be employed in the management of money levied for the express purpose of supporting Teachers of the Christian Religion.” In all, some 28 counties sent in petitions arguing that the gospel required rejection of the assessment.
The alliance between evangelicals and Madison and Jefferson reappeared at critical junctures. When Madison ran for Congress in the first elections, against the charismatic war hero James Monroe, it was the Baptists who rallied to him because of his support for the separation of church and state. It was the evangelicals who prodded Madison into proposing a Bill of Rights that guaranteed religious freedom and limited the government role in religion.
The most pungent illustration of the alliance rolled toward the White House on New Year’s Day in 1802. Standing at the door of the new presidential mansion in Washington, President Thomas Jefferson saw two horses pulling a dray carrying a 1,235-pound cheese with an inscription: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The cheese was a gift from evangelical activist the Rev. John Leland of western Massachusetts — a “thank you” for Jefferson’s support of the separation of church and state.
It is commonly assumed that Baptists supported the separation of church and state to avoid persecution. That was certainly partly true. The Baptists of Virginia suffered a wave of persecution at that time. But the evangelical passion for keeping church and state separate had theological roots, too. Christians were to render unto Caesar what was his — the religious and political spheres were meant, by Jesus, to be separate. Just as important, both the Baptists and the philosophers believed in the primacy of individual freedom. For Madison and Jefferson, individual liberty trumped the rights of kings or governments; for evangelicals, an individual’s personal relationship with God was more important than church and clerical authority. Let’s remember who will provide the final assessment of a life well lived, Leland wrote: “If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
If alive today, 18th-century evangelicals might well agree with their theological descendants that the nation needs more religion. But they would disagree that it requires more state support or advocacy for religion. It was the evangelicals who worked with Madison to shape the true “founding faith,” which was not Christianity or secularism. It was religious liberty — a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.
(For more on this topic, see Founding Faith)