As a lifelong Baptist, I’ve been rightly appreciative of our tradition of promoting religious liberty.
In my youth, at a conservative Southern Baptist Church in central Oklahoma, I was taught all people should be free to worship as they choose.
It was acknowledged they might go to hell for such worship, but they should have the freedom to choose so.
The conviction we Baptists owned key real estate in the history of religious freedom was reinforced during my undergraduate years at Oklahoma Baptist University.
There, I learned about our efforts to advocate for the First Amendment. I met the famed James Dunn of the BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), an inspiring and engaging national leader who left a lasting impression.
I learned about pastors like George W. Truett (1867-1944), pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, and his contention, “The impartial historian, whether in the past, present or future, will agree with our American historian, Mr. Bancroft, when he says, ‘Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists.’”
Truett quoted the enlightenment philosopher John Locke. “The Baptists were the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.”
While clearly part of the Baptist story, I have come to realize (later than I ought, I fear) this is a very whitewashed reading of our contribution to liberty.
In fact, Southern Baptists are grievously guilty of not just religious liberty violations, they have a long history of religiously based violence against people of color.
This cannot and should not be dismissed as simply a product of another time.
“It behooves us often to look backward as well as forward. We should be stronger and braver if we thought oftener of the epic days and deeds of our beloved and immortal dead. The occasional backward look would give us poise and patience and courage and fearlessness and faith,” Truett stated in an address on the east steps of the National Capitol, May 16, 1920.
I would add it behooves us to look back not just for “poise and patience” but also for repentance and reparation. For the past is never truly the past.
We are rooted in the past, and in this soil we feed on its nutrients and we get sick on its poison.
Though statements of repentance have been made, I believe efforts of understanding the link between our faith and our history of racial and religiously based violence has been found wanting.
In May 2019, the General Assembly of the United Nations (resolution A/RES/73/296) designated Aug. 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
Some people I work with in my advocacy at the U.N. were engaged in conversations that strengthened this resolution.
We should all appreciate its clarion condemnation of all acts of violence against persons based on their religion or belief.
It rightly deplores, “any acts directed against homes, businesses, properties, schools, cultural centers or places of worship, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines that are in violation of international law.”
The designation of such a day is a mechanism for shining a spotlight on hotspots where such travesties are taking place.
While its primary purpose is focused on present abuses, it’s vital to recognize that were we living not so long ago, Baptists of the southern U.S. would be recognized for their religiously based violence on people of color.
Baptists, as a white Christian Protestant tradition, grounded both slavery and support for the subsequent Jim Crow laws, in “biblical” interpretations.
The fact Baptists don’t broadly recognize how our backing of slavery and its offspring, structural racism, was based on our religion is itself a testimony of all the whitewashing that has taken place in our written history.
While Baptists were advocating for those of other faiths to worship in freedom, those same Baptists, particularly in the South, were also subjecting people of African descent to violence. This is true not in spite of religious commitments but because of them.
Religious ideology, rooted in biblical interpretations, allayed the conscience of the slave trader, gave harbor to the heart of the slave owner and compelled many who hated the evil done to generations of other humans to remain silent.
A key cornerstone of this ideological pathology was the curse of Ham. In Genesis, we find this story of Noah who provoked by his son Ham, who “saw the nakedness of his father,” cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and his lineage to perpetual servitude.
While many scholars agree the original purpose was likely to justify the subjection of the Canaanite people to the Israelites, later the story was interpreted as an “origin story” for those with black skin and a justification for enslavement.
Until very recently, the Latter-Day Saints used the curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of Black men.
As Julian Lucas sums it up well in a 2019 essay in The New York Times, “The passage makes no reference to Africa, but centuries of Muslim, Jewish and Christian commentators have tethered Ham’s curse to blackness, thereby justifying slavery from the plantations of the Deep South to the salt mines of the Sahara.”
The fact that a strain of this ideological sickness is still present in many of the Baptist traditions is evident in current polling.
In a recent article, Robert Jones provides compelling evidence that in public opinion polls “white Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.”
Evangelicals in the U.S. south (of which Baptists make up the majority) are among the worst in this regard.
There is one clear explanation for this unsettling reality. It is only in recent decades that white Baptists would understand that subjugation and slavery were antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
For decade upon decade, all the talk of liberty and freedom took place in the context of large brackets where people of color were placed and excluded.
I do not believe we will see progress in the future unless we face squarely the past that is so evidently with us in the present.
Our not-so-very distant Baptist ancestors were perpetrators of the kind of religiously based violence we seek to deplore today.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (Aug. 22). The other articles in the series are:
Is Our Concern Over Religious Persecution Too Narrow? | Rob Sellers
Judaism Can Be Antidote to World’s Evils | Fred Guttman
Stearman directs the International Advocacy Baptist Collaborative that seeks to amplify and coordinate the advocacy work of the global Baptist family at the United Nations and in WDC. He is vice chair of the board of trustees for the Parliament of World Religions and writes regularly on the intersection of religion and international/cultural affairs. For over three decades, he served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His educational background includes theological degrees from Southwestern and Princeton Seminaries and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.