Lawsuit Lesson: Illinois Atheist Teaches Baptists About Their Heritage

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Does it take an atheist to teach Baptists about their own heritage?

Apparently so.

Atheist activist Rob Sherman has filed a lawsuit in Illinois state court seeking to block a $1 million government grant to Pilgrim Baptist Church. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Gov. Rod Blagojevich promised the money to the Chicago congregation after a fire damaged the church building.

But why is a church getting government money? What about the separation of church and state? Shouldn't houses of worship be built and maintained with the voluntary donations of the faithful, not the hard-earned dollars of the taxpayers?

Well, yeah. But Blogojevich, a Democrat, was running for re-election at the time, and the promise seemed like a good idea - a little walking-around money for members of a prominent religious community.

"We all know Rod did this two months before his primary election victory over Edwin Eisendrath," Sherman told the newspaper. "January 2006, when the fire happens, and he's in the March primary against Eisendrath, Rod was pandering for black votes. I understand that. But you can't have the state donating $1 million to a church. You can't do that with tax dollars."

Here's an idea: why doesn't Pilgrim Baptist Church show some integrity and some historical and theological awareness and turn the money down?

Baptists traditionally have been ardent supporters of the separation of church and state. A despised minority in colonial America, they were often jailed and otherwise persecuted for refusing to accept the government-established religions of their day.

In a recent essay, a Georgia pastor called on Baptists to remember their history.

Writing in The Moultrie Observer, the Rev. Michael Helms noted the religious liberty contributions of American visionaries such as Roger Williams, a Baptist preacher who founded Rhode Island as a haven for those seeking freedom of conscience.

"When Christianity is forced on citizens by the state," insists Helms, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga., "faith becomes detached from the heart, and the gospel is prostituted. Another problem created by not separating church and state is that Christianity may be used for the political and personal agendas of those who espouse it. Because of such dangers, Williams rightly contended that the mixing of the two is bad for both.

"Because of people like Williams," Helms continued, "Baptists became known as champions for religious freedom. They demanded, often to their own peril, the right to practice religion without interference from the state. Baptists also stood with other faiths and even with those who professed no faith, for the right to the same principle. As they did, the numbers of Baptists grew, partly because people admired Baptists for practicing the Golden Rule and partly because Baptists maintained their responsibility to share the gospel. The credibility Baptists built up enhanced their efforts of evangelism."

Concluded Helms, "Baptists embraced this concept during their days as a minority, and today, we as Baptists and other Christians ought not to forget this concept now that we have numbers and money in our corner. The surest way to lose disciples is to try to force Christianity on the masses. That has been tried. It does not work. Let's get back to living by the Golden Rule and applying it to church and state issues."

I don't know if the folks at Pilgrim Baptist Church are looking for a guest preacher for their pulpit. But if they are, I nominate Pastor Helms. He has a message that the congregation needs to hear. Indeed, Gov. Blogojevich, two presidential candidates and numerous politicians around the United States need to hear it, too!

In the meantime, good luck to Rob Sherman on his lawsuit.