We live as a people in the midst of great diversity. We are diverse in age and gender and race and religion, especially religion. Even among Christians there is great variety. When we factor in the many other religious expressions in America, we are as one scholar put it “awash in a sea of faith.” And that doesn’t even take into account the many people who have no faith at all.
We keep hearing one group make the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Does that mean only Christians can be citizens? Does that mean only Christians can run for public office? The framers of the Constitution had a chance to think about this and decided that there would be no religious test for public office, or citizenship either. In what is truly a unique political and social arrangement, a person of any faith or of no faith can theoretically become president of the United States.
In actual practice, it doesn’t work that way. We have become a Christian nation in name, not because of any particular Christian virtue, but simply because Christians outnumber all other faiths, and dominate in public office as a result.
But where does that leave the rest of America? Because of this question, it has been difficult for me from time to time to fully accept my identity as a Baptist. I speak mainly of Southern Baptist identity, which for over three decades now has systematically become detached from any sense of its historical roots.
I feel the full weight of this detachment in responses I get to my weekly column. People are either surprised and respond with something like, “What kind of Baptist are you?” or they are angry and say something like, “How can you call yourself a Baptist?”
And clearly, sometimes I ask myself those same questions. In fact, two years ago I participated in a forum of Baptist leaders asking the question quite deliberately ”should we continue to refer to ourselves as Baptists? Ironically, I was asked to speak on why we should keep the term Baptist.
As I prepared my presentation, I came to the conclusion that there is in the history of what it means to be Baptist a clustering of ideas which provide a solid theological foundation for living in a pluralistic world. These ideas make it possible for me to not only embrace my own faith but also celebrate with others who fully embrace their faith even though it is different from mine.
These ideas were forged in the crucible of persecution. They came into existence at a time when Baptists were hounded by an official state church that punished the tiny sect for its stubborn dissent. In response to this persecution, Baptists formulated a set of distinctive theological ideas as a way of defending and preserving their fragile vision. None of these ideas is more significant than the notion of religious liberty.
Religious liberty means we have the right to express our spirituality in ways that are meaningful for us. In order to do that we understand we must create an environment where everyone can pursue truth the way they understand truth. In other words, the only way there can be religious liberty for anyone is to guarantee religious liberty for everyone.
Of course, thinking that way effectively eliminates the idea of a Christian America. But it does provide an atmosphere where people can pursue God as they choose. Baptists used to believe that, and this Baptist still does.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.