Baptists have a tradition of religious liberty

July 08, 2004

Dear Editor:

As a student in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I took a course in Baptist history and felt pride at the discovery of the role Baptists had played in American history. Recently, I got down my copy of Robert G. Torbet's "A History of Baptists" and found again the following passage: "Democratic America should be eternally grateful to the Baptists of colonial New England and Virginia, for it was, in part at least, their struggle for religious liberty which culminated victoriously in the omission of any religious tests or restrictions when the Constitution of the United States was being framed . ...It has been to safeguard their beliefs in the priesthood of the believer and in religious freedom that Baptists have insisted upon the complete separation of church and state."

The passion of Baptists about these matters was the result of their own experience of oppression by the governments of colonial states. Some (but not all) immigrants from Europe came to these shores to establish the shining "city on a hill" but, instead, immediately set up exclusive religious states that reproduced the intolerance and oppression that drove them here in the first place. Roger Williams, who was temporarily a Baptist, was banished by the state of Massachusetts for his support of separation of church and state, prompting him to found Rhode Island Colony as a place that guaranteed religious liberty.


The problem was not that Massachusetts was secular but the opposite: It was officially committed to the beliefs, values, and practices of one religion alone. One by one, the states, because of negative experiences, came to the view that only when the government was secular could the religious rights of all be preserved. Thus, by the time the federal Constitution crafted protections for religions from non-secular states, it was merely seconding what state constitutions had already done.

Throughout most of American history Baptists have been vocal and consistent in the application of these principles. Torbet notes, for example, that on the one hand, they have opposed government funding for parochial schools and sending an ambassador to the Vatican; on the other, they have been, as he puts it, "the first to defend the right of Roman Catholics to worship according to the dictates of their conscience."

The Advocate-Messenger of July 4th carried a story about Southern Baptists being "angry" with and "appalled" at the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign's "inappropriate" use of church rosters for campaign purposes. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was quoted as saying, "I suspect that this will rub a lot of pastors' fur the wrong way." Given the rhetoric and action by the present administration aimed at blurring the separation of church and state, nobody, least of all Baptists still familiar with their own history, should have been surprised at this outcome.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are 9,900 "separate and distinct" religions in the world, many of them here in America. All want religious liberty, a condition even partially possible only when church and state are separate.

Nowadays, when some want to put copies of the Ten Commandments in government buildings or on government property, when religious marriage is not distinguished from civil marriage (as distinct from civil unions), and when the present administration promotes public funding for faith-based organizations (all 9,900 of them?) and co-opts churches for political purposes - i.e., when they seek an identity of government with particular religious views or programs, I find myself a bit nostalgic for past Baptist leadership. A resurrection appearance by those wary, courageous, clear-eyed Baptists would be both timely and welcome.

Milton Scarborough


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