Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Baptists and Religious Liberty

I will be speaking about separation of church and state at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lawton this morning. Below is an excerpt from my sermon.

Speaking opportunities at your church, service organization, social club, or political organization are welcome.

From the sermon, "Trading Places" (Matthew 22:15-21) --

Baptists joined the revolution to secure more than liberty from the English crown in earthly matters. John Leland, the leader of the Virginia Baptists, told George Washington that “liberty of conscience” is “dearer to us than property or life” and he meant it. Baptists were fighting for liberty in spiritual matters. Baptist came to this country seeking religious freedom only to discover that it was denied them in many of the colonies –- particularly in Massachusetts and Virginia.

The Puritans in Massachusetts flogged Baptists for conducting unauthorized worship services -- and that was lenient. They hung four Quakers for the same offense. Between 1772 and 1776 the jails in Virginia were full of Baptist preachers who were arrested for preaching the gospel without a license –- and they couldn’t get a license because they were Baptists.

That’s why, for Baptists, the war for independence was a war for religious liberty.

And that’s why Baptists would not rest until the constitution of this new nation explicitly guaranteed that every citizen would have an equal right to liberty of conscience.

For the Baptists of that time, liberty of conscience meant that church and state would be separate, that no one could be forced to pay taxes to support religion, that no one could be forced to participate in religious exercises against their will, and that everyone would have freedom of religion or freedom from religion -- according to the dictates of their own conscience.

237 years later most Baptists don’t know this history and really don’t care to know it.

That’s why the values of those revolutionary Baptists are remarkably different from the values of most Baptists today.

Today, most Baptists no longer believe in separation of church and state – they think it is a communist idea found only in the constitution of the Soviet Union.

Today, most Baptists think it is fine for both the state and the federal government to distribute tax dollars to the churches that work the hardest to get-out-the-vote in political elections.

Today, most Baptists believe the Supreme Court provoked the wrath of God when it prohibited government agents from forcing school children to participate in acts of worship –- the daily recital of officially approved prayers.

Today, most Baptists think the constitution created two classes of citizens –- first class citizens -– people of the majority faith who are free to impose their religious values on society by legislation, and second class citizens –- people of minority faiths who are tolerated only so long as they remain invisible and stay away from the public square.

No doubt, if the Baptists of 1776 traded places with Baptists today -- both would be shocked.

The Baptists of 1776 would be shocked to learn that they have less in common with their Baptist descendants than that they do with the descendants of the Congregationalists in Massachusetts and the Episcopalians in Virginia who once persecuted them so mercilessly. Modern Baptists would be shocked to discover that they have more in common with the loyalist conservatives of the Church of England than they do with their liberal, radical and revolutionary ancestors.

Frankly, most Baptists and other evangelical Christians today are a lot like the Herodians and Pharisees of Jesus day –- they just don’t comprehend what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God.


  1. Bruce, thank you for reminding me of the history. And for reminding me of the teachings of my childhood. The modern penchant to conceptualize the government and church as one and the same continues to frustrate me...I suppose one of the unspoken portions of the confusion over the issue is the church's abdication of "social ministries" to the government...and then the anxiety that the government is not doing it correctly because there are not enough strings attached....grin.

    Quid pro quo...

  2. Thanks for your note Michael. It is good to find another Baptist who admits to remembering what they were taught about Baptist history and Baptist principles in their childhood.

  3. I can't say my church gave me much about the history of Baptists, which is one reason I chose that history as the topic for my high school senior theme. What I do recall being taught is a fierce independence of thought. Our conclusions didn't always please each other (or certainly our pastor), but a foundation of our faith was what we called the "priesthood of the believer." Some of us took that very seriously and today find the modern tendency to force a single, homogenous doctrine on everybody as offensive and not true to our heritage.

  4. Thanks for you note Carter. Yes, Baptists were once fierce defenders of independent thought. Each believer was expected to work out their own salvation and cultivate a conscience sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Today Baptists are supposed to submit to pastoral authority and trust him -- it has to be a him -- to be the conscience for his entire congregation.