Thomas Jefferson stood, dressed in a black suit, in a doorway of the White House on Jan. 1, 1802, watching a bizarre spectacle. Two horses were pulling a dray carrying a 1,235-pound cheese—just for him. Measuring 4 feet in diameter and 17 inches in height, this cheese was the work of 900 cows.
More impressive than the size of the cheese was its eloquence. Painted on the red crust was the inscription: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The cheese was a gift from religious leaders in western Massachusetts. ***
...[I]n a modern context, the most remarkable thing about the cheese is that it came from evangelical Christians. It was the brainchild of the Rev. John Leland—a Baptist and, therefore, a theological forefather of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham. ***...[T]he one group that would almost certainly oppose the views of 21st-century evangelicals are the 18th-century evangelicals... In state after state, when colonists and Americans met to debate the relationship between God and government, it was the proto-evangelicals who pushed the more radical view that church and state should be kept far apart. Both secular liberals who sneer at the idea that evangelicals could ever be a positive influence in politics and Christian conservatives who want to knock down the “wall” should take note: It was the 18th-century evangelicals who provided the political shock troops for Jefferson and Madison in their efforts to keep government from strong involvement with religion. Modern evangelicals are certainly free to take a different course, but they should realize that in doing so they have dramatically departed from the tradition of their spiritual forefathers.
Sometimes it helps to remember who our forebears are. The original "netboots" activists who used their networks -- called "churches" -- to lobby for adoption of the liberal Bill of Rights were evangelical Christians who neither asked government to fund their charity through "Faith Based Initiatives" nor trusted government to teach their children how to pray, what to believe about Creation, or much of anything else. They demanded the Wall, or something like it, and those of us who are working to inspire new generations of community activists do well to remember the faith-based energy, commitment, and unshakeable optimism that drove many of our forebears to create a nation of laws and rights, from John Leland to the mid-1800s Abolitionists to the Progressives to Martin Luther King to the faithful that stake out the (now renamed but unchanged) School of the Americas and illegally but charitably give water and medicine to illegal immigrants today.
"We Shall Overcome," the old spiritual that became the anthem of the civil rights movement, was a faith song, one we need to sing ourselves when we get discouraged over Alito and the NSA and Iraq and all the other disasters the Bush administration leaves behind it like horses in a parade. We need to remember, court, embrace and learn from that kind of hope and energy as we take on the task of saving our country from dangerous, demagogic men who loudly proclaim their faith, but act as if they have none.
BACK TO VICHYDEMS HOME