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Take a stand for faith, Land urges, as Baptists of colonial times did

PRINCETON, N.J. (BP)–The next president of the United States will name two or three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, making this election “the most important since Civil War Reconstruction,” Richard Land told a forum at Princeton University in which he underscored Baptists’ heritage of courageous stands for religious liberty.

With two or three of the court’s aging justices expected to retire, the next president will have a huge impact on the court’s direction for years to come, Land said April 26.

“If a liberal like Vice President Al Gore is elected, we can expect him to nominate liberal justices to the court,” Land said. “They will remain at the court, impacting the nation’s direction, long after Al Gore is out of office.”

Land did not endorse the candidacy of Gore’s rival, Texas Gov. George Walker Bush. In fact, Land joined in an April 24 call for a meeting between evangelicals and Bush to discuss his recent meeting with a politically active group of homosexuals.

Land’s speech, titled “The American Religious Experiment: Avoidance, Accommodation and Acknowledgment,” was the sixth and final of a “Religion and Politics” series sponsored by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and Center for the Study of Religion. Other speakers were Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life; Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who served in the Reagan Administration; Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern College; Eugene Rivers, founder of the Ten Point Coalition Leadership Foundation in Boston; and Richard Rodriguez, a homosexual activist and commentator on PBS’ “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

Land, who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history from Princeton in 1969, said the school’s student body had greatly changed from the one he remembered from the turbulent ’60s.

“Guys in my dormitory had both a confederate flag and a North Vietnamese flag hanging from separate ends of the building,” Land said. “I think one was put up to offset the other. H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael dropped in to engage, or perhaps enrage, the student body, and the Students for a Democratic Society group was in full bloom here.”

Today’s students, in comparison, seem much more mature, Land observed, and instead of being preoccupied with protesting and making their voices heard, they are concerned about getting a good education so they can better compete for a good job.

While concentrating on classes and preparing for a career is a good thing, Land noted in this booming economy many Americans, especially college students, seem to be relegating faith or any interest in God to a back burner as they instead pursue material happiness.

Such tunnel vision, Land said, ignores the fact that a healthy economy is a blessing of God that can be reversed by him at any time. Students must focus on what is eternal, he exhorted, not just what is material.

“Baptists, by nature, do not willingly subordinate their faith because of a public decree so ordering them to, or because it is not politically correct to live by one’s faith in this nation,” Land noted “For instance, in the decade prior to the American Revolution, some 500 Baptist pastors and lay leaders in America were thrown into jail for ‘disturbing the peace,’ or in other words, preaching sermons without government-issued licenses.”

The Baptists believed in liberty, not toleration which would teach that they should have applied for and received their licenses to preach and then followed the local government’s strict rules as to where, when and for how long they could preach, Land said.

“Rather than do that, they went to jail. How many of us would do the same today?”

America’s leaders not only lack the backbone to stand for God as those earlier Baptists did, they also lack the core necessity to even contemplate such a stand: faith in the living God, Land said. Thus America’s youth have few examples of courageous, selfless statesmen on the national political scene to whom they can look as good examples of Christian leadership, Land said.

America’s politicians cannot avoid the fact there is a God by writing laws that bar mention of God in the public square and passing laws that penalize those who try to live by the dictates of their faith, Land declared.

Drawing again on history, Land recalled that all Americans at the outset of the Revolutionary War did not support independence. “But a careful examination of colonial history reveals that only one Baptist pastor is recorded as being pro-British. All the rest were actively pro-independence,” Land said.

The colonial preachers were so fervent in whipping up morale at home and getting citizens to support the troops that the British frequently referred to them as the “black regiment” so named because of the black garb most wore in the pulpit at the time, Land recounted.

“One British general wrote that the ‘black regiment’ was much more dangerous than any other fighting regiment the Americans had, in that the pastors bucked up not only the home morale, but that of the troops,” Land said. “They clearly enunciated the reasons Americans were fighting for independence and constantly quoted chapter and verse of the Bible to make their case.”

Such pastors and lay leaders made their case knowing they could be killed or taken prisoner by the British for so doing, Land said, noting, “But they did so anyway. That is the kind of courage we need today.”

While saying he prayed he would never have to make such a choice, Land praised the courage of the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said before he died in a German concentration camp that he had come to believe he had a clear mandate from God to help ensure his country lost the war because it was doing things that were clearly not of God. “Bonhoeffer loved Germany like I love America,” Land said. “I pray I never have to arrive at such a conclusion.”

Land recounted that Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland also demonstrated the courage of his convictions by preparing to run against James Madison. But when Madison agreed with Leland’s request to add an amendment to the then-newly written Constitution, which had not yet been approved by the states, Leland withdrew from opposing him and worked to ensure Virginia’s support the Constitution, Land said.

“That amendment? ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'” Land said. Without that amendment being added, at the insistence of the Baptists who were a crucial voting block in Virginia, chances are the Constitution would not have been approved when it was first submitted for a vote to the states, Land said.

“Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated the common goal and ideal of the overwhelming majority of American citizens, living and dead, when he wrote: ‘What our Constitution indispensably protects is the freedom of each of us, be he Jew or Agnostic, Christian or Atheist, Buddhist or free thinker, to believe or disbelieve, to worship or not worship, to pray or keep silent, according to his own conscience, uncoerced and unrestrained by government.’

“That right is as vital now as it was when the First Amendment was written,” Land said.

Another way American leaders try to avoid God in the public domain is to insist that “you cannot legislate morality,” Land said. “President John F. Kennedy once said ‘the greatest enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.’ It is, for example, a persistent myth in American culture that you cannot legislate morality.

“Nothing could be more false. As a practical matter, all governments legislate morality. If we had no laws against murder, the murder rate would explode. If we had no laws against thefts, property losses would soar. If rape wasn’t against the law, rapists would prowl about untouched. Of course you can, and must, legislate morality,” Land said.

But such myths are gradually eroding the bedrock of faith upon which this nation was built, Land said. “A recent poll found that the most religious country in the world is no longer America, but India,” he said. “The least religious was Sweden, where very few Swedes even acknowledge a higher power, let alone God.

“Ireland was second and America was tied for third with Northern Ireland. That poll prompted one prominent American Christian to comment that America is a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes,” Land said, chuckling, eliciting laughter from the audience.

Land recalled how amazed he was nine years ago, when returning to New York City from Russia, to see a Time magazine cover in an airport newsstand whose headline asked, “One nation under God: Has separation of church and state gone too far?” Inside, the story said, in part, “for God to be kept out the classrooms by nervous school administrators or cowardly politicians is serving no one.”

“I nearly fell over, reading that magazine at the newsstand. Here was Time magazine, not known as a bastion of Christian thought, writing something about God which I wholeheartedly agreed with. The article was not calling for a return of prayer in schools, but to allow students to bring God into class discussions and to write about him in their homework assignments and so forth,” Land said.

Nowadays, students face serious disciplinary actions for bringing to school, as one first grader did, a book about Esau and Jacob, which he wanted to read during show and tell. The parents are suing the school system after their child was told he could not read the book and then punished when he insisted on reading it, Land said.

“There is no reason why a student cannot talk about his faith or his beliefs in a discussion in which such comments would naturally arise,” Land said. “Neither should the student be penalized, as another student was, for writing a homework assignment about Jesus Christ being his role model.

“Why is it,” Land asked, “that those who have no faith in God are free to express their lack of faith, publicly and without censor, and we are not allowed to express our faith?”

During the question-and-answer period immediately following Land’s talk, one graduate student who identified herself as Jewish said she has Jewish friends in the South who feel intimidated that they are stymied in their efforts to stop student-led prayers at football games and commencement exercises. The student said her Jewish friends feel they are being force-fed Christianity at such times.

In response, Land said he used to feel uncomfortable growing up in Houston, where one-third of his classmates were Jewish, to hear Christian prayers read over the intercom every morning in school. “I used to think [Jesus] isn’t their savior, why should they have to listen?”

But Land said he is not against student prayers, but against prayers led by teachers and other school staff. He said he also is against having a teacher lead a discussion on faith during class. While students could discuss their beliefs, the teacher as an employee of the school should remain mum on his or her personal beliefs, he said.

By the same measure, government should acknowledge faith by letting Christians construct, with private funds, Christmas manager scenes on public property such as the courthouse lawn, and the government should pay to light it and provide adequate security, Land said. “Accordingly, displays from Muslims and Jews and others should also be allowed to occupy public land during the appropriate holidays of their religion.”

Instead, governments have rushed to bar all such displays, attempting once again to remove faith from public life, a goal that only Nazi Germany and some communist nations ever succeeded, for a time, in doing, Land said. “I’ve heard it said that Nazi Germany was the fullest example of Darwinian survival of the fittest at work. It is true, in that babies with defects and the mentally retarded and profoundly physically handicapped were all murdered.”

Yet allowing governments to begin outlawing any and all public pronouncement of faith is a step down the same slippery slope that could bottom out in just such a society, Land said. “We must be always on guard to protect and fight for our rights to express our faith. It is a battle worth engaging.”

    About the Author

  • Daniel Walker Guido