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.

“Government,” he said, “should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

On Leland’s tombstone are these words: “Here lies the body of John Leland, 1754-1841, who labored sixty-seven years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of men.”

So why would Leland be troubled today?

The Southern Baptist Convention’s misnamed Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has just given a “John Leland Award” to Alan Sears, head of the notorious Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).

What? Surely not a religious liberty award for the guy who leads a mega-bucks legal campaign to dismantle Jefferson’s (and Leland’s) wall of separation between church and state. Founded and funded by TV preachers, the ADF crusades for the Religious Right’s narrow-minded sectarian vision of America.

“One by one,” Sears once said, “more and more bricks that make up the artificial ‘wall of separation’ between church and state are being removed, and Christians are once again being allowed to exercise their constitutional right to equal access to public facilities and funding.”

Yup. That guy. It’s a little like giving Lindsay Lohan the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s “Woman of the Year Award.”

But it’s hardly surprising. You see, the Southern Baptist leadership has utterly abandoned its historic support for church-state separation and thrown in with the theocracy-minded Religious Right. After a fundamentalist takeover in the early 1980s, the SBC moved to the hard right.

As one Baptist blogger lamented, “I think it happened when Baptists realized they were no longer the persecuted minority but were the pious majority. Something happened after WWII when the Baptists were the Boom in Baby Boomers and took over as the largest Protestant denomination. We Baptists became the very thing we used to preach against.”

“We Baptists,” the blogger continued, “were the initiators of Church-State Separation. It was our motto. It was in our DNA. It was who we were, what we were about (e.g., soul freedom and each person answerable to God alone) and the basis of our identity. Not any more.

“Starting in the 1970s and the rise of the Moral Majority, we Baptists became not the voice of Hope but the voice of a voting bloc that could be delivered by a group of pastors bent on a political agenda. We were not the Voice but the Vice. We stopped being the Compassionate Hand and became the Calloused Agenda. No longer did we serve the Master but the Mammon, the Power and the wishes of whatever political issue would sway us with pious words.”

“Shame on those Southern Baptist pastors,” the blogger concluded, “that sold our Baptist soul for 30 pieces of silver … and the ear of the politicians.”

Sounds like John Leland still has faithful friends preaching as he did. Preach on, Brother Blogger, preach on.

We urge clergy of all faiths to stand up for church-state separation. It’s a constitutional principle that’s good for religion and good for America. And it’s under fire as never before.

John Leland would be the first one to arise and defend the church-state wall – and his spiritual descendants in the Baptist tradition should do so as well.

Joseph L. Conn is the director of communications of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This column first appeared on his blog and is used by permission.

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