Baptists today have largely abandoned a noble tradition of the separation of church and state in part because they have forgotten what it is like to be a religious minority, says the author of a new book critical of America’s Religious Right.
Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament includes a chapter titled, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University, used that same title for an address he gave at a 2004 national gathering of moderate Baptists in Nashville, Tenn.
“In a sense what happened with the Baptists was that Baptists wanted the separation of church and state as long as they were a minority,” Balmer said Sunday on Bruce Prescott’s “Religious Talk” radio program. “When they attained something like majority status, or at least hegemonic status in American society, they said, ‘Wait a minute. Why should we tolerate these other groups?'”
Balmer admitted to Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, that might be an overstatement. “But I think there’s something to that. I think the attempt to eviscerate the First Amendment is in many ways a response–it’s kind of a knee-jerk response–to new waves of pluralism in America.”
Balmer said the genesis of his new book, his hardest-hitting to date, was the 2004 presidential election. He said he was distressed not so much by the outcome, though he disagreed with that, but by the “widespread assumption among my evangelical brethren and sisters that there was only one possible moral, religious vote that was available to them in the 2004 election.”
As a person who considers himself to be a follower of Jesus and a scholar who has studied American religious history, Balmer said his quarrel with the Religious Right is two-fold: “I think they have taken the New Testament, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, which I consider to be lovely and redemptive, and they’ve turned it into something ugly and punitive.”
They also, he said, have betrayed “what I consider to be the noble legacy of 19th century evangelical activism,” which expressed itself in such progressive causes as abolition, public education and women’s suffrage. “Try as I might examining the actions and the policies of the religious right at the turn of the 21st century, I don’t find any sort of real echo of those concerns and that agenda,” he said.
Balmer said he finds it “really distressing” that contemporary Baptists have drifted from the “noble tradition” of “liberty of conscience and separation of church and state,” which dates back to Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America. Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 for opposing collusion between church and state. He moved to Rhode Island, where he established a haven for religious toleration. His Baptist ideas eventually were codified in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Balmer said it is worth noting that Williams’ main worry about merging church and state was that “the garden of the church would be contaminated by the wilderness of the world.”
“As I look at the contemporary scene I see sadly that most Baptists in America–I think that’s a fair statement–are trying to tear down this wall of separation between church and state,” Balmer said. “I worry about the integrity of the faith in that sort of configuration. I think that’s very dangerous.”
“There is even a movement within the Religious Right of people who claim to be Baptist–I think they’re counterfeit Baptists, they’re not real Baptists–who are trying to deny the founders ever intended for church and state to be separate,” Balmer continued. People like David Barton and Rick Scarborough, he said, are “propagating this propaganda that the founders never intended church and state to be separate.”
Barton, for example, likes to present the fact that Congress appropriated funds for the printing of Bibles as evidence that the founder’s viewed America as a Christian nation.
“Far from illustrating that this was consistent with the separation of church and state,” Balmer said, “what I think this demonstrates beautifully is how the separation of powers provision of the U.S. Constitution works. Because the judiciary stepped in quite rightly and said: ‘Wait a minute. We are becoming a much more pluralistic country. We are no longer simply a Christian or Deist nation. And to favor one religious faith or one religious tradition does indeed represent a violation of the First Amendment.'”
Balmer said Christians should not rely on the state to legitimize their faith by dictating prayer in public schools, using taxpayer funded vouchers to support religious schools and channel money to churches through faith-based initiatives.
“What I really worry about ultimately,” he said, “is that the faith itself is diminished when you suggest that it needs the support of the state; that it can’t stand on its own merits and needs the support of the state.”
“Religion has flourished, the faith has flourished, in America more than 200 years precisely because the government has stayed out of the religion business,” Balmer said. “And why we would want to tinker with that formula? We Americans are off the charts in our religious affiliation, in our belief in God, compared to any other country in the world. And it’s precisely because the First Amendment sets up a kind of free market for religion, where all religions compete on an equal footing for popular appeal, for members, for followers.”
Unlike their spiritual forbears, who wanted only a level playing field, Balmer said today’s Religious Right Baptists “want a privilege” over other faiths. “What they want to do in effect is to destroy this free market, which has served us so well,” he said. “We have a vibrant, salubrious religious culture in America. And they want to skew the rules to their advantage.
“I understand that impulse, but I think it’s profoundly wrong.”
In addition to the radio interview, Balmer and Prescott engaged in an online discussion at the Faith in Public Life Web log that continued into this week.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to order Thy Kingdom Come from Amazon.com.