Chapter 18   Tearing Down Religious Liberty: The Takeover’s Political Agenda  

The go-along, get-along strategy is dead. No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage
— Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (formerly Christian Life Commission), to the Republican Party.[111]

 It is clear, from what speakers at recent conventions have said and from the political endorsements by Convention leaders, that the Southern Baptist Convention leadership has identified with the Republican Party. It would be just as unfortunate if the Convention were aligned with the Democratic Party
— Bill Bruster in Is Your Church Free or Reformed? [112]

 

Religious liberty, guaranteed in the United States by the separation of church and state, is a unique and crucial part of our heritage. Religious historian Sanford Cobb called religious liberty “America’s great gift to civilization and the world.”

According to Dr. Derek H. Davis’ article, “Why keep church and state separate,” available from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty’s website (bjconline.org), the separation of church and state is ultimately a theological concern:

      People must believe for themselves, otherwise the divine initiative is compromised and government has violated the sacredness of those whom it is called to serve. The great Baptist John Leland would agree: “Religion is a concern between God and the soul with which no human authority can intermeddle.”

This does not mean that there is no public role for religion. America has a rich tradition of acknowledging the sovereignty of God over the nation by adopting generic language that attempts to respect as many Americans' faith as possible. For example, the national motto, "In God We Trust," is a broad term that most, though certainly not all, Americans can support. Such "civil religious" practices are assurances against carrying the separation principle too far, against government-sponsored secularism, but the basic commitment to separating church and state remains — as something that is good for both government and religion.[113]

Historically, Southern Baptists were strong advocates for church-state separation. We insisted that the state remain neutral on religious issues in order to protect liberty of conscience for religious minorities.

Baptists shaped public morality though the witness of the church rather than the through the power of the state. For more than sixty years, Southern Baptists have advocated this position through the work of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

The Pressler-Patterson coalition that took over the Southern Baptist Convention favors church-state accommodation. They intend to promote specific religious agendas through public policy and want religious majorities to have greater access to public funds to do so. The Pressler-Patterson coalition has defunded the Baptist Joint Committee and created an Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to promote their accommodationist agenda in Washington, D.C.  

Former President Jimmy Carter expresses concern over these developments in his book Our Endangered Values. Fundamentalist influences being felt in public life, Carter says, include an "entwining of church and state." Christian Fundamentalists during the last two decades "have increasingly and openly challenged and rejected Jesus' admonition to 'render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.'"

"There is obviously a widespread, carefully planned and unapologetic crusade underway from both sides to merge fundamentalist Christians with the right wing of the Republican Party," Carter continues. "Although considered to be desirable by some Americans, this melding of church and state is of deep concern to those who have always relished their separation as one of our moral values." [114]

Republican leaders also recognize the danger of this merger of religious and political groups. Former Republican Senator and UN Ambassador Jack Danforth stated in a New York Times editorial, “by a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of the Conservative Christians.”[115]

As a committed Christian and ordained minister, Danforth again expressed his dismay at this union of church and state in a June 2005 editorial. Senator Danforth writes: "In recent years, conservative Christians have presented themselves as representing the one authentic Christian perspective on politics. With due respect for our conservative friends, equally devout Christians come to very different conclusions. It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative. Our difference concerns the extent to which government should, or even can, translate religious beliefs into the laws of the state.”[116]

This shift in the Convention’s view of the separation of church and state is revealed in the resolutions and stated positions of the group. At the 1981 Southern Baptist Convention in Los Angeles, messengers passed a resolution which reinforced the SBC’s strong belief in separation of church and state. The resolution: affirmed the “belief that religion flourishes best without government's interference or tax support,” and voiced “earnest protest against tax proposals which would finance educational and other activities of churches or religious groups.”

By 1995, however, “the ‘Wide Awake’ issue came before the Supreme Court. Wide Awake, a student religious publication at the University of Virginia , wanted government money for its publication. The Baptist Joint Committee [which had been defunded by the SBC in 1991] agreed with the lower courts that the government should not use public money to publish a religious magazine. The Christian Life Commission’s political action committee supported the Wide Awake publishers, advocating the use of public funds for the religious magazine.”[117]

Other examples of this shift in philosophy, says Carter, include the SBC’s support for private school vouchers and a constitutional amendment to authorize mandatory prayer in public schools.[118]

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111. Michael Smith, “BJC Freedom Fighters Thrive Despite Assaults,” Baptists Today, August 20, 1998, 4, quoting The New York Times, March 23, 1998.

112. Bruster, Is Your Church Free or Reformed?, 8.

113. Derek H. Davis, Why keep church and state separate ( Washington : Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).

114. Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values ( New York : Simon & Schuster, 2005).

115. Jack Danforth, “The Disappearing Wall,” The New York Times, April 26, 2005.

116. Danforth, “Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers,” The New York Times, June 17, 2005.

117. Bruster, Is Your Church Free or Reformed?, 7.

118. Carter, Our Endangered Values, 60.  

 

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