This coming week we celebrate the 231st anniversary of the founding of our nation. All across our land there will be fireworks and parades commemorating our successful fight to free ourselves from British rule. And it is absolutely fitting and proper that we should remember our national story. I just wish we remembered it better, and more of it.
As a Christian and a Baptist, I wish we remembered the religious dimension of our revolutionary struggle. In the years prior to the American Revolution, Baptists, along with other religious minorities, were scorned and persecuted. Puritans who had fled England seeking religious freedom in the century before the revolution were actively involved in denying religious freedom to those who dissented from the majority church. At times the persecution became violent.
When the war began, Baptists joined the ranks of the revolutionary army in droves. They saw the fight for political freedom as also a struggle for religious freedom. These Baptists, led by the likes of Isaac Backus and John Leland, knew the dangers of a state supported church. They completely rejected the idea that America should be a Christian nation.
This is how John Leland put it: “No national church can in its organization be the Gospel Church. A National church takes in the whole Nation, and no more; whereas the Gospel Church, takes in no Nation, but those who fear God, and work righteousness in every Nation. The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”
Though small in number, these Baptist leaders wielded significant influence. They vigorously lobbied the Continental Congress for a strong statement on religious liberty. Here is what James Madison wrote to James Monroe concerning the idea of Christianity as America’s official religion.
“The Episcopal clergy are generally for it. The Presbyterians seem as ready to set up an establishment which take them in as they were to pull one down which shut them out. The Baptists, however, standing firm by their avowed principle of the complete separation of church and state, declared it to be ‘repugnant to the spirit of the Gospel for the Legislature to thus proceed in matters of religion, that no human laws ought to be established for the purpose.'”
The debate became so contentious that Baptists in Virginia began a movement to elect John Leland over James Madison to represent the state at the ratification of the new Constitution. This would have been a huge embarrassment to the chief architect of the Constitution. Only after Madison agreed to actively support an amendment that called for religious freedom, free speech, and a free press, did Leland drop out and throw his support to Madison.
Something singularly important was born as a result of the fight for freedom in our country. For the first time in history religion was free from the influences of the state and vice versa. We have had this privilege for so long that sometimes we forget how difficult it was to achieve.
At the close of the convention Benjamin Franklin emerged from the meeting hall and was immediately accosted by a woman. “Well, Doctor, what did we get?” she asked. “A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin looked at her and replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Keeping our republic requires memory. We must remember how our freedom came to us, and at what cost. We must also remember what that freedom means, especially as it applies to faith. In America, as far as the law is concerned, all faiths are created equal.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.