On Baptists and the Separation of Church and State

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The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

Let me humbly apologize in advance to my fans all over the state, the country and the world for what I’m about to say, although I suppose there is a timeless message here for those who have an ear and can hear.

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Glynn Wilson

There is a little reunion event going on this weekend and since I know some people will be Googling around and peeking in on Facebook this afternoon looking me up, I have a message for them. I will have more to say about this in a memoir that will be out later this year on Kindle.

But for today, as I sip my Sunday morning coffee, I would like to ponder this question: How did the Baptist church in America stray so far from its separation of church and state roots?

I do have some answers. But first I want to set it up with a little background most people probably don’t know.

Be forewarned that for this I will borrow heavily from Wikipedia, since I don’t have time to go to the damn library and take notes and rewrite all of this from scratch. Not that anybody does that anymore anyway. I am not a Baptist historian, but I have learned a few things about this over the years. I have opinions about this subject, which I am allowed to express under the free speech and free press clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and publish on the Web Press – because I own one.

I will say I am sorry in advance to my critics who think I plagiarize from Wikipedia sometimes. I’ve got news for them too. There is no such thing as plagiarizing Wikipedia. It is an open source online only encyclopedia that invites larceny. That is part of the philosophy behind it in the interest of education and enlightenment without the commercialization of all information for capitalists to exploit. It is also not plagiarism if the author cites the source of the material. So I’m going to include the links to the Wikipedia articles I’m using for this background.

I am going to rewrite it liberally, however, for the purposes of this analysis and to make my point. That’s what pundits do, even the one’s on talk radio and Fox News, which some people seem to follow as if they were as pure as the Jesus Christ they hold so dear.

Here’s the main point.

For much of English and American history, Baptists were some of the strongest proponents of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. One of the reasons is that the Baptist “separatist” movement was considered to be a step child denomination, and they were discriminated against by other, richer religious groups like the Catholics and the Episcopalians.

There was no separation of church and state in the days of European monarchies. The pope, bishops and the like were often the most influential voices before kings and queens at court. In stronger words, they ran the damn state in those days, which is why many early American colonists fled here in the first place — to escape religious persecution. When zany King Henry the VIII split from the Catholic church in Rome, things got really crazy in Europe.

That history is now lost on most Southern Baptists especially, who are some of the worst offenders of holding politicians to a conservative, fundamentalist, litmus test whenever election time rolls around.

Let me say it again this way, quoting directly from Wikipedia: “Baptists supported separation of church and state in England and America.”

You can look this up in all kinds of places, but in any source you choose to trust, some of the important Baptist figures in the struggle were John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Edward Wightman, Leonard Busher, Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isaac Backus and John Leland. You can look any of them up and read more about any of them on the Web through an Internet connection. But let me just pass along some of the key quotes.

In 1612 John Smyth wrote, “the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience.”

That same year, Thomas Helwys wrote that the King of England could “command what of man he will, and we are to obey it … with this Kingdom, our lord the King hath nothing to do.”

In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote what is believed to be the earliest Baptist treatise dealing exclusively with the subject of religious liberty.

The concept was implicit in the flight to try to avoid religious oppression in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Roger Williams when he was trying to help setup the Colony of Rhode Island on the principle of state neutrality in matters of faith. Williams was motivated by historical abuse of governmental power, and believed that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with god, advocating a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” Through his work Rhode Island’s charter was confirmed by King Charles II of England, which explicitly stated that no one was to be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion.”

Williams is credited with helping to shape the church and state debate in England, and influencing such men as John Milton and John Locke, whose work was studied closely by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other architects of the U.S. Constitution. Williams theologically derived his views mainly from scripture and his motive is seen as religious, but Jefferson’s advocacy of religious liberty is seen as political and social, that is secular, not based on his own religious convictions.

In America, it was the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut which sent a letter dated October 7, 1801 to the newly elected President, Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern over the lack in their state constitution of explicit protection of religious liberty, against a government establishment of religion.

On January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson responded in a letter that is now quite famous, concurring with the Danbury Baptists’ views on religious liberty and the accompanying separation of civil government from concerns of religious doctrine and practice.

But also according to Wikipedia and many other scholarly documents, many contemporary American Baptists have a revisionist view of things, expressing openly the false belief that the U.S. was formed as a “Christian nation” by the Founding Fathers. They assert that “separation of church and state” in no way limits religion in the state, but merely refers to the state’s responsibility to refrain from exerting authority over ecclesial bodies.

But that is utterly ridiculous, since most of the Founding Fathers were not Christians at all but Deists. This is well established history, and no amount of Christian idiocy on the subject is taken seriously by real scholars or serious journalists.

There are many Baptists in the United States who still believe in the wall of separation and support maintaining it. Fifteen Baptist organizations, representing collectively more than 10 million Baptists in America, collaborate with one another to protect religious liberty and the separation of church and state through their funding of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Freedom of conscience is a historic Baptist distinctive, and many Baptists continue to believe the best course for obtaining and securing freedom of conscience is through the separation of church and state.

While religious conservative critics try to make much of the fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not explicitly used in the original Constitution, people who understand how the law works know that the Constitution is extended every time the U.S. Supreme Court issues a precedent setting ruling. And the term separation of church and state is mentioned in a number of Supreme Court cases, some of them written by an Alabama native and Southern Baptist himself, Hugo Black, for whom the federal court building in downtown Birmingham is named.

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Supreme Court first considered the question of how this applied to the states in 1947. The case before it involved a New Jersey taxpayer who sued against a tax funded school district providing reimbursements to parents of both public and private schooled children, including religious schools, for taking the public bus to school. The taxpayer contended that reimbursement given for children attending private religious schools violated the constitutional prohibition against state support of religion, and the taking of taxpayers’ money to do so violated the constitution’s Due Process Clause. In Everson v. Board of Education, the court incorporated the establishment clause into the living Constitution by determining that it applied to the states.

The 5-4 decision, with the majority opinion written by Justice Hugo Black, was handed down on February 10, 1947. The Court ruled that a state law was constitutionally permissible because the reimbursements were offered to all students regardless of religion and because the payments were made to parents and not any religious institution. Perhaps as important as the actual outcome, though, was the interpretation given by the entire Court to the Establishment Clause. It reflected a broad interpretation of the Clause that was to guide the Court’s decisions for decades to come. Black’s language was sweeping:

“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.'”

Beginning in the late 1940s, Black wrote several decisions relating to the establishment clause, where he insisted on the strict separation of church and state. The most notable of these came down in 1962 in the Engel v. Vitale ruling, which declared state-sanctioned prayer in public schools unconstitutional. This provoked considerable opposition, especially in conservative circles. Efforts to restore school prayer by constitutional amendment have failed time and time again, although the tea party Republicans in control of the Alabama Legislature are trying to push another bill again this year. It is guaranteed to fail.

The famous quote from Black from that decision goes like this.

“The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”

Now let me provide one scholarly answer to the original question: How did the Baptist church in America stray so far from its separation of church and state roots?

Back in the summer of 2011, I interviewed retired Auburn History Professor Wayne Flynt on a larger question about why working class people vote against their economic best interests?

Since I interviewed him in a Baptist church in Auburn, and figured he might know the answer, I also asked him why Baptists are so ignorant of their own religious history? His response did not make the story on the economic question. But he told me the reason Baptists are ignorant of their history is because due to dwindling church attendance in the 1960s and ‘70s, in part, the church got rid of “training school” they used to hold on Sunday nights, where members were taught doctrine and history.

Nobody talks about that anymore. There are so many disagreements between members of church congregations anyway that churches are constantly splitting up and forming new ones, where ostensibly they get together with like-minded individuals who agree on what religion should be. Racism is often part of this. White flight is still a real phenomenon in the American South and probably elsewhere as well.

If you have a curious mind, read more about this here.

I also had an interesting conversation awhile back with the head of the Alabama Baptist Convention, someone I knew from my past. You can read about that and watch the video here.

Is A Great Compromise Between Science and Religion Possible?

Glynn Wilson Interviews Mike Shaw

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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  3 comments for “On Baptists and the Separation of Church and State

  1. Jim Williams
    March 16, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    For any who’d care to explore the deep, historical roots of this issue further, an excellent starting point is Chapter 4 — “The Separation of Church and State” — in Mark A. Noll’s “The Old Religion in a New World; the History of North American Christianity” (Eerdmans, 2002). Noll is a highly respected Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Illinois, which is hardly a hotbed of wild-eyed liberalism.

  2. dunder
    March 31, 2014 at 12:17 am

    “…the Baptist “separatist” movement was considered to be a step child denomination, and they were discriminated against by other, richer religious groups like the Catholics and the Episcopalians.” This passage recalls the old saying that sketches white Protestant sociology: A Methodist is a Baptist with shoes. A Presbyterian is a Methodist with a bank account. An Episcopalian is a Presbyterian with a bank account big enough to live off the interest.

  3. T.W. Bigler
    April 7, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    A great book on the subject is Founding Faith by Steven Waldman. I also studied this a bit under Dr. Adam Jortner at Auburn University.

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