[NOTE: This post is expanded from a comment I left at my friend Chuck Blanchard’s blog, A Guy in the Pew.]
Mitt Romney’s speech the other day was despicable, and it’s getting attention all over the Atheosphere. It’s also being criticized on the Web sites of the many believers, like Chuck, who are strong advocates for the separation of church and state.
But I’m not sure we can, or should, make a distinction between Romney’s blatant “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” and all the other presidential hopefuls’ incessant professions of faith. Not one of those candidates, of either party, has come out unequivocally to support the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Nor have any of them argued strongly for the continued separation of church and state in all situations — including the courting of votes.
Oddly enough, some of the most vociferous early proponents of separation were Baptists. Today’s fundamentalists, many of whom themselves claim to be Baptists of one denomination or another, forget or ignore how vehemently their church forebears championed the clear division between religion and government.
Here are a few quotes from two notable Baptist preachers:
Isaac Backus (1724-1806):
[When] church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.
Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.
John Leland (1754-1841):
The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. ... Government 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.
Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. 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.
I’ve emphasized a section of this next Leland quote with boldface. It could apply to every politician in the United States today.
Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny — the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick despatch, characterise the men of your choice. Such men will have a sympathy with their constituents, and will be willing to come to the light, that their deeds may be examined.
Modern-day evangelicals have tried to spin these kinds of quotes to mean that the government, while not allowed to recognize a specific religion, ought to recognize religion as an innate value. But I think it's pretty clear to anyone who reads English that neither Backus nor Leland meant to say that. They meant to say the same thing that many of us mean to say now: There should be absolutely no crossing of the line between church and state. Guard against those men (and women) who make a great noise about religion.