On Religious Liberty:
Why Baptists Separate Church and State
NorthHaven Church in Norman, OK on October 23, 2005
by Dr. Bruce Prescott
The first thing I did when Dr. Brown asked me to preach on Religious Freedom was to reflect on how I learned about the Baptist heritage of religious liberty. I would like to say that I learned it at Sunday School or in Training Union or from a series of sermons that I heard my pastor preach. But that was not the case. With a few exceptions, from the time that I was a teenager, Baptists have done a poor job of teaching Baptist Distinctives. The truth is, I learned about religious freedom from my mother.
I grew up in New Mexico and my mother encouraged me to study Baptist distinctives after she saw my seventh grade text book on New Mexico state history. A great part of the history of New Mexico is the history of Spanish Conquistadores and Catholic priests. She was alarmed that my public school textbook had so sanitized the missionary methods of the Conquistadores that I would become unduly impressed with the piety and virtues of Spanish Catholicism. She knew something about the Spanish Inquisition and she knew that Baptists had been persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. So, she decided that it was time for me to learn about what it means to be a Baptist. She handed me a booklet that she had studied years earlier in a Training Union class. It was a little red pamphlet, about fifty pages long, that was entitled The Trail of Blood and it had a chart in the back that traced the history of the Baptist church all the way back to John the Baptist at the Jordan River.
As a 13 year old boy I was very impressed with The Trail of Blood, but even before I graduated from High School I had discovered that most Baptist preachers make lousy historians. The idea that Baptists can trace their succession back to Jerusalem is an old Landmark Baptist myth, it’s not history. I learned that while I was in high school working on a project for my history class.
When I began reading some real church history books – books from church historians from all denominations and theological perspectives -- I discovered, to my great suprise, that Monatists and Donatists and Albigenses and Waldenses were not really Baptists. They were persecuted mercilessly by other Christians but they were not Baptists. What J.M. Carroll really did in his pamphlet was to trace the history of religious intolerance and then he claimed that everyone who was ever persecuted for their faith was a Baptist.
Any schoolboy who did a little research for himself could learn that J.M. Carroll was wrong. And frankly, it has been a long time since I have heard someone pushing the old Landmark myth of Baptist successionism. That myth has been replaced by a new myth today. And the new myth is far worse than the old myth. The old myth was harmless. The new myth is dangerous. Those who believed the old myth merely filled their minds with a false sense of pride. Those who believe the new myth have taken it upon themselves to fill high elective offices and positions of political power throughout our country.
The new myth has been promoted by the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention and host of other “Religious Right” organizations for more than a quarter of a century. Their myth is every bit as much a fable and a fairy tale as was the old Landmark myth about Baptist successionism. Any school boy or school girl who takes the time to do a little research for themselves can learn that it is wrong. But, people have been listening to TV preachers weave fairy tales about the United States being a “Christian Nation” for so long that they assume it must be true and they won’t bother to do the research. Today, for more than half of the Christians in America, it is an article of faith that the United States was a “Christian Nation” until 1962 when some liberal, secular humanist judges on the Supreme Court kicked God out of the public schools.
Baptists should know better.
The one thing that was true in the old Baptist myth in “The Trail of Blood” was that the history of Western Civilization has been a bloody trail of religious persecution. It was a bloody trail because Christians united church and state and evangelized by birth and by force of law instead of by the persuasion of preaching. Then, people became citizens of the state and were baptized into the church on the same day -- the day of their natural birth.
Before Baptists founded the colony of Rhode Island, every nation that had ever existed on the face of the earth believed that separating religion and government would create divisions and disrupt the peace and tranquility of society. Freedom of thought and liberty of conscience were the equivalent of treason in those days -- and nothing disturbed the peace like people thinking that faith was a personal decision and that only believers should be baptized. That is why the Christian magistrates of Europe drowned Anabaptists and burned them at the stake. That is why the Christian magistrates in Colonial America banished, whipped and imprisoned Baptists and Quakers. And, after bearing the brunt of those persecutions, that is why the Baptists who fought in the revolutionary war refused to adopt a constitution that lacked an explicit guarantee that church and state would be separate.
Those 18th century Baptists did something that no people had ever done before them -- they created a society that guaranteed both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. They insisted that minorities should be protected from the tyranny of the majority in matters of faith and conscience. They created a society that guaranteed freedom of conscience to every citizen. They did that by making it possible, as colonial Baptist evangelist John Leland put it, for “a Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian” to be eligible to serve in any post of the government. They did that by refusing to ratify the constitution unless an amendment separating church and state was added. When all is said and done, the first amendment to the constitution of the United States is the single greatest contribution that Baptist people have made to the history of western civilization.
Baptists were doggedly relentless in pursuing religious liberty for everyone – even for the atheist who, as Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier surmised, “wished to do nothing more than to forsake God.” We were relentless about separating church and state because it is essential to our understanding of the way that God relates to humanity.
God did not send his son to die for principalities and powers. God sent his son to die for people. Jesus was not concerned with earthly kingdoms and nation states. God’s kingdom has always been a spiritual kingdom -- a kingdom of love and grace.
The spiritual nature of God’s relation to man was revealed from the beginning. God was not making androids and robots. He made us in His image -- the image and likeness of a loving, personal God. That means that we were created to live in loving personal relationship with God and with others.
Genuine love springs up voluntarily, from a willing heart. Love cannot be coerced. You cannot force someone to love you. It’s a matter of trust and commitment.
God desires that everyone love him and trust him and his Spirit is continually calling us to live in relationship with him. But, if love is a free response of trust and faith, then the freedom to reject God and his love must also be possible.
The truth is, at one time or another, we have all sinned, and turned away from the glory of God’s love. Every sinner – that’s every human being -- has personal experience with the freedom that God has given us.
If God leaves us free in matters of faith and religion, what right do men have to try and force it upon people?
God never commanded us to force the children of people who hold vastly divergent faiths and beliefs to say generic prayers in public schools. In fact, Jesus discouraged public praying. He said don’t stand on the street corner and blow trumpets when you are praying. He told us to go to our closets and do our praying in secret.
Christ never commanded us to force atheists and Buddhists and agnostics to acknowledge God in pledges of allegiance to some earthly authority. Jesus separated church and state. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world” and he advised us to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s.”
For nearly a generation, TV Evangelists and Southern Baptist preachers have been standing in their pulpits and raising their authoritative voices with loud conviction preaching exactly the opposite of what I just said. But I am convinced that they are preaching from the false gospel of civil religion. They never got authority for state sponsored prayers or for religious pledges of allegiance from the Bible and the source of their conviction comes neither from the words nor from the Spirit of Christ.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you think a little “ceremonial deism,” a handful of ten commandments monuments and a few public displays of piety have anything at all to do with the command to proclaim the gospel to the people of all nations.
I’m certain of this. Our Baptist ancestors would have scoffed at the idea that nationality had anything to do with being a Christian. Nations can’t be Christian. Only people can be Christian. People don’t become Christians by being born into a “Christian Nation,” people become Christians by being “born again.”
Baptists don’t believe in faith by proxy. Faith is not a birthright and real faith is not passed down like an heirloom from one generation to the next. Real faith has always been a matter of the heart and conscience. That is why Christ gave each person direct access to the throne of grace. Each person must come to faith by personal conviction and individual commitment.
We don’t believe that saints or priests or preachers or parents serve as our mediators. There’s only one mediator between mankind and God – the man Christ Jesus – and everyone one of us is called to be his priest and commissioned to be his ambassador.
Baptists really believe that the gospel is “good news” and we firmly believe that every one of us – not just the preacher -- has a responsibility to share it. To share it we have to be open to genuine dialogue and honest discussion with everyone that we meet – especially with our unbelieving friends and acquaintances.
The early Baptists were always discussing their faith with people who had different convictions. That was because very few people shared their beliefs and convictions. Like the Apostle Paul who preached in the marketplaces and amphitheaters of a pagan world, they were confident that the gospel of Christ has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a thoughtful comparison of beliefs and convictions. They were convinced that those who cut off discussion and persecuted people of different convictions had a weak faith that could not bear honest scrutiny and thoughtful examination. Those who used force of law and government to defend their religious culture and heritage were merely striving to preserve a dying faith.
Those early Baptists had a lot of first hand experience with dead and dying belief systems that relied on the force of government to preserve their hold over minds and hearts. That’s why the early Baptists were never in favor of uniting church and state. All we asked was to live in a society that practices the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We wanted to live in a society where people would extend to us the same courtesy and respect that they asked for themselves. We pledged to extend to all others the same courtesy and respect that we asked for ourselves. For Baptists an ideal society is one where each person respects the right of every other person to live according to the dictates of their own conscience in matters of faith and religion.
In political life, nothing was more important to us than securing and preserving respect for liberty of conscience. In a society that granted liberty of conscience, every person would be assured the right to hear a thoughtful, sensitive presentation of the gospel — if they were interested, every person would be afforded the responsibility to make their own response to the claim that the gospel makes on their lives – either to accept it or reject it, and every person would be permitted to live with the eternal consequences of their own personal decision.
The early Baptists never sought the aid of the government to help them spread the gospel and they protested vociferously whenever they were forced to pay taxes to support the faiths of others. We believe that each congregation should call its own minister and pay for their own facilities and support their own work. In our eyes, no faith should be supported out of the public treasury. Period. We expect the government to be neutral in matters of religion. The government’s responsibility is to preserve the peace, secure justice, and insure a free marketplace for the exchange of ideas.
For Baptists a free marketplace for the exchange of ideas is much more important than a free market for goods and services. Whether the economy is feudal, agrarian, commercial, or industrial is not half as important as whether we are free to preach the gospel. In a free marketplace of ideas -- where the truth of the gospel can compete on level ground with every conceivable religion and philosophy -- we are confident that the gospel will win hearts and change lives. All the gospel needs is a free and open hearing.
What early Baptists feared most is what modern Baptists are now striving to secure -- a government sanctioned and supported monopoly in the marketplace of religious ideas. In the eighteenth century Baptists were a minority in the population. Then, it was in our best interests to have a constitution that protected the rights of the minority and assured freedom of conscience. Today Baptists comprise a majority. Now, most Baptists believe that it is in our best interests to grant ourselves special privileges.
To our great shame and disgrace, Baptists are proving to be as self-serving and self-interested as the Christians of centuries past. We too will use our power to suppress free thought and oppress the consciences of others. We too will flaunt our faith and force our beliefs on others.
In so doing, we discredit the deepest convictions and firmest beliefs of our spiritual ancestors. In so doing, we devalue the sacrifices of blood, sweat and tears that they shed to secure the liberty of conscience that made this land such a fertile field for the gospel. Even worse, in so doing, we undermine the credibility of the very gospel that we have been called to proclaim.
This is not an idle concern. We read about the volatile mix of religion and politics in our newspapers and watch it on our televisions literally every day. The most insidious examples of it are the “Charitable Choice” initiatives begun under the Clinton administration and the “Faith-based initiatives” that have been expanded by the Bush administration.
What could possibly trivialize genuine faith and destroy its credibility more than to create the impression that it can be manipulated to serve the political purposes of the highest bidder? That is precisely what is happening today in this state and throughout our country.
Here in Oklahoma, Mainstream Baptists, Americans United and the Interfaith Alliance and some members of the state legislature have been monitoring the activities of the office of faith based initiatives in Oklahoma since it opened five years ago. From the very beginning and continuing to this day, there has been a consistent pattern of ignoring, disqualifying or deliberately excluding minority faith groups and, at times, interfaith groups from faith-based contracts and services. Yet, the office continues to enjoy the support of both parties for purely political reasons.
At the national level, Democrats have wooed Hispanic voters by giving the Catholic Church hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Spanish missions in California.
Republicans have made inroads into African-American communities by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars each to a few black churches to run soup kitchens (in politically strategic communities) all over the country.
Pat Robertson, of all people, raised a hue and cry against abuses like these -- until he received a half million dollars worth of hush money for one of his charities. Now he is at the top of the list of those receiving government funding.
A month ago, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor of one of the largest megachurches in Houston, a church that targets affluent suburbanites and has never taken much interest in the plight of the poor in the past, -- paid one million dollars for the right to control the city’s relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman says they made an investment. Coleman says this megachurch now is a conduit for billions of government dollars being distributed throughout the city of Houston. If you like what the Fundamentalists did when they got control of the purse strings in the SBC, you are going to love what they do with your tax dollars.
All of this mixing of politics and religion -- with preachers endorsing candidates from the pulpit and politicians giving money to preachers to run soup kitchens -- is destroying our witness. The machinations of money and the manipulations of secular politics are trivializing our faith, undermining the integrity of our witness, and destroying the credibility of the gospel of Christ.
Is there a word of hope that can be offered in the face of this alarming state of affairs?
There is hope!
There is hope if Christians who comprehend the true mission of the church will find the courage to stand up, speak out and do something to preserve the integrity of the Church’s witness.
There is hope if Christian people will do something to put an end to the politicization of the church in this country.
There is hope if Christian people will speak out and make it clear that TV preachers and right-wing evangelists do not speak for them and they do not represent the best that the Christian faith has to offer.
There is hope if Christian people will stand up for religious liberty for all persons. Only then will we be able to share a gospel that is “good news” and not “bad news.”
The gospel never has been the “bad news” about legislatively coerced conformity to anybody’s “worldview.” The gospel has never been a message about creating a Christian “culture.” The gospel has always been the “good news” about the love and grace for all people that God revealed in Jesus Christ.
It’s time for all Christians to stand up and start proclaiming God’s love and grace again. Then, we need to demonstrate it in both word and deed.
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