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Maybe it's time to dust off John Leland.

Quick, name a famous Baptist who is long dead and whose collection of writings is now selling for about $400--for a used copy of a 1969 reprint! Now, name a famous Baptist who insisted that churches and ministers should not receive tax favoritism from governments.

While known for his tireless work to separate church and state in Virginia and the new American republic (his later efforts helped fuel the creation of the First Amendment), few realize the depths of John Leland's commitment to insulating religion from government and preventing religion from determining public policy. At a time when religious institutions and clergy are not only exempt from taxation, but are also the recipients of government funds from the White House's Faith Based and Community Initiative, perhaps a reexamination of John Leland could help modern Baptists sort through today's complex First Amendment issues as related to church and state.

Having been casually familiar with Leland for many years, I "discovered" him about five or six years ago when I acquired (for the now bargain basement sum of about $60) an original edition of his Writings, published in 1845. (1) Reading the browned volume, I learned that in his extensive writings over the course of six decades Leland presented a consistent and determined defense of separation of church and state. For example, in the late 1820s, he supported mail delivery on Sundays at a time when many Protestants sought to discontinue the practice on religious grounds. In 1828, Universalists and some Baptists opposed the Protestant majority that pressured the government to recognize Sunday as a holy day. Separationists, Jacksonian small government advocates, and business interests won the day. Yet, in the 1850s and 1860s, separationists suffered a blow when the proliferation of the telegraph became the technological agent that led municipalities to cease postal mail delivery on Sundays. (2)

Recognition of Sunday as a holy day was followed by further alterations to early understandings of First Amendment church/state separation and an increase of civil religion. In 1894, Congress exempted religious institutions from paying income tax and in 1917 allowed taxpayers to deduct gifts to religious organizations. The 1920s witnessed the beginning of tax breaks for ministers. During the 1950s, the phrase "In God We Trust" appeared on currency, the words "One Nation Under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and "So Help Me God" was added as a suffix to the oaths of office recited by federal justices and judges. (3)

While some advocates today are calling for limits on expressions of civil religion, most religious institutions and clergy unquestioningly accept government favoritism of religion in tax codes, in national slogans, on currency, and in judicial halls. Yet a backlash seems to be brewing. When a California law professor in 2002 sued for revocation of tax-free ministerial housing allowances, Southern Baptist mega-pastor Rick Warren teamed with the Internal Revenue Service and successfully lobbied the courts to maintain favored treatment for clergy. (4)

If alive today, John Leland might well be disappointed that even well-intentioned and historically-aware Baptist ministers are so comfortable with personal government favoritism. As both pluralism and secularism increasingly define America, the country may eventually return to Leland's strict interpretation of church/state separation. Eliminating religion-based tax favoritisms would allow churches freely to address politics from the pulpit. While the prospects of elimination of preferential tax treatment would likely result in weeping and gnashing of teeth among religious groups, perhaps it is time to dust off and reconsider Leland in this era of First Amendment uncertainty. But for now, if you are a minister, you can still deduct the cost of Leland's writings from your taxes.

Bruce T. Gourley

Interim Director

The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia

(1.) L. K Greene, ed., The Writings of the Elder John Leland: Including Some Events in His Life, Written by Himself (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845).

(2.) See Wayne E. Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

(3.) See Donald G. Jones and Russell E. Richey, eds, American Civil Religion (Pittsburgh: Mellon University Press, 1990).

(4.) See http://www.benefitsboard.com/Warren%20-%20We.b%20Articles.htm, accessed September 22, 2008.
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Author:Gourley, Bruce T.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:702
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