Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Evangelical Founding Fathers

posted by swaldman

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)

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posted December 14, 2008 at 1:11 am

The above article is historicaly correct and has some good information why the Baptist of Virgina and in the rest of the nation wanted no part of a government supported church. Nearly 400 years ago the first Baptist church was established in England. Thomas Helwys a leader of that church. Wrote a treatise to King James (yes, that King James)stating the case for freedom of religion and for his efforts he was put in Newgate prison where he died.
As far as we know no Baptist was killed for their faith in the colonies, but the Purtians/Congregationalist put to death three Quakers and persecuted many others, including Roger Williams who established the first Baptist church in America.
John Leland, Bapist evangelist, led the fight for religous freedom in Virginia. Virginia’s example became the model which help led to the First Amendment.
There were those in some churches and government who believed churches could not survive without government support, mainly in the way of taxes. Others felt that churches should “sink or swim” like a free market system. Great revivals continued, freedom of religion led to tremendous growth of converts.
Have we lost our faith in God that we now think we need government action to help us in our failure to be the church?
Bro John Leland (who baptized at least 1,000 converts in his ministry) would say keep the government out of God’s church and wonder what has happened to the Baptist church of today.

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posted December 14, 2008 at 8:19 pm

The government should keep its fingers out of the church. For the left, however, the phrase “separation of church and state” has come to mean the church should keep its fingers out of the government. The left perverts everything it touches. The church is not some monolithic being, it is made of individuals who are citizens of this country. As such they have the right to vote and influence legislation. The “wall” is one way and bars the government from “establishing” a religion as great Britain did. It does not bar the members of the church from participating as citizens.
Historically, Baptists opposed government involvement in religion because of the extreme persecution they suffered in Europe. An early leader of the Anabaptists was sewn into a sack and thrown into Lake Constance. Prisons in the Netherlands were filled with Anabaptists, with many of them executed. The opposition based on advancement being better without government involvement came later.

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posted December 19, 2008 at 10:10 pm

Thanks for the history lesson, Steven. I get so tired of Christians who seem more worried about the USA than they do about the Kingdom of God–I think it has become an idol to us.
Once we convert to Christianity, we transfer our citizenship to God’s kingdom. This nation is not our home and we do not truly belong to it. It is our Christian duty to work for its welfare and peace, but we must never let it interfere with God’s call in our lives.

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posted January 23, 2009 at 11:41 am

Much has been argued concerning separation of church and state and the arguement will probably go on for more years that we wish.
However, many if not most of the founders were Christian, although they attended different denominations. Here lies the rub.
I think what the founders wished was not a separation from Christian values, etc. but from a state run church. In looking at England’s history and much of europe’s as well, the church, for many years as a state run entity, was used to inflict power, influence and sadly, injustice. Our founding fathers, in their wisdom, had the wish to make sure this could not happen in America. So, they constructed our origional laws, which laid the basis not for abolishment of the church or its iteals but the LACK of a central, state run church that could be used by self centered individuals to take us backward and not forward.
I do not make this statement in light. My mother’s family does in fact go all the way back to John Hancock and John Quincy Adams. I am well aware of the sacrifices our founding fathers made and also keenly aware of the same sacrifices made by each generation that came after them. In Jesus Name, I pray that we all seek God’s wisdom in our time and treat others as we would wish to be treated. I pray that we never sacrifice our God given freedom. Lastly I pray that we remember that it was He that GAVE us that freedom and orchestrated everything so we could attain it.
All Blessings,

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posted May 29, 2013 at 5:35 am

Evangelical Founding Fathers make huge effect to our life!

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