America needs “more Baptists” to help recover its bedrock commitment to the separation of church and state, religion professor and author Randall Balmer said Friday.
Balmer, a professor at Columbia University and editor-at-large for Christianity Today, spoke at a banquet at the third annual Mainstream Baptist Convocation, held Friday and Saturday at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
About 200 people gathered for the conference, with the theme “Religious Freedom: What Makes America America.”
Speaking in the city regarded as the center of the Southern Baptist Convention, Balmer noted the “irony” that: “Baptist principles of the separation of church and state have all but disappeared. What once was a proud and defining tradition … has withered beneath the onslaught of misguided individuals who seek to impose their own views on the rest of society.”
“Never in my life did I think I would say this, but America needs more Baptists,” Balmer said.
Conscious of squabbles over religion in the Old World, Balmer said America’s founders recognized that the best posture was for government to stay out of the business of religion.
He credited Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist movement in America, for the concept of the separation of church and state. Williams “wanted to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world,” Balmer said.
Another Baptist from colonial times, Isaac Backus, echoed Williams, Balmer said, noting that Jesus in the gospels made no use of secular force in establishing the church, even though he presumably could have done so.
On May 16, 1920, George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, told a crowd on steps of the U.S. Capitol that church-state separation is “pre-eminently a Baptist contribution,” Balmer said.
Truett, Balmer said, believed that religion should be “voluntary and uncoerced.”
“Christ’s religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source,” Truett said, “and the degree it is thus supported is a millstone around its neck.”
Balmer said controversy over Alabama chief justice Roy Moore’s defiant placing of a Ten Commandment monument in the state judicial building indicates how far contemporary Baptists have strayed from their historic commitment to religious liberty.
Balmer, an expert witness in the Alabama case, said Moore’s attempt to enshrine what he calls “the Judeo-Christian” tradition “clearly represents a violation of the First Amendment proscription against religious establishment.”
But Balmer said Moore and his supporters fail to recognize and appreciate “that the First Amendment is the best friend religion ever had.”
America’s “experiment” with separation of church and state has resulted in a “dynamism to American religion that is unmatched” in other nations, he said.
Balmer identified two setbacks for church-state separation that occurred in the late 1970s.
One, the rise of the religious right, he said, resulted from a change in immigration laws that greatly increased religious diversity in the United States. Seeing “their hegemony slipping away,” religious leaders “felt their faith could no longer compete in the new, expanded, religious marketplace,” Balmer said.
For that reason, they “sought to change the rules” in the1980s and secure their position through political power.
By doing so, however, Balmer said the church “paid a fearsome price” in emergence of the “prosperity gospel” and the loss of “its capacity for cultural critique.”
A second development, Balmer said, was the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, which began in 1979.
New leaders of the nation’s largest Protestant faith group “steadily whittled away at their Baptist heritage” by supporting policies like school prayer and faith-based initiatives, he said.
Unlike Roger Williams and Isaac Backus, representatives of religious minorities who looked to the government for protection from the established majority, today’s Baptists “seek to impose their religion on all Americans,” Balmer said.
“How peculiar that Roy Moore and many of his followers pretend to be Baptist,” Balmer said. “I’d like to know why every Baptist in Alabama didn’t storm the judicial building and demand” the removal of what has been called “Roy’s Rock.”
“Religion flourishes best at the margins of society, not at the center of power,” Balmer said. Efforts to merge church and state, he said, “trivialize the faith and turn the Decalogue into a fetish.”
“American needs more Baptists who understand the crucial difference between persuasion and coercion,” Balmer said.
Truett said Baptists have never been party to oppression of conscience, Balmer said. “May it again be so. May it always be so.”Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.