Cuban Baptists emphasized the importance of the Baptist principles of separation of church and state during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Coordination of Baptist Workers and Students in Cuba (COEBAC) earlier this month.
Raúl Suárez, a longtime Baptist leader in Cuba and member of the National Assembly of People’s Power (Cuba’s national parliament), led the discussions as one who has worked in both religious and political realms.
Suárez served as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana for more than three decades and founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, an ecumenical organization helping Cuban Christians engage society in Havana.
“There is a temptation for both church and state to meddle in the other,” Suárez argued. “The greatest sin of the church throughout history has been uniting itself with the state.”
Suárez called church-state separation “one of the main principles of Baptists.”
“It’s a legacy we have received from way back,” he added, as he briefly recounted Christian history in terms of church-state relations.
Noting the shift that occurred when Roman Emperor Constantine united church and state, Suárez argued that this changed “the shadow” under which Christians lived.
“The shadow is not the cross, the shadow is the throne,” he explained, as he noted how the focus of the church changed from that of the early disciples.
Suárez said that with the union of church and state, the church became rich and powerful. This change shifted the church’s focus to supporting its state allies and its own institutional status.
He therefore praised the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation for its rejection of the union of church and state. “The rejection of the state, the suspicion of the state was radical,” he stated.
Urging those at COEBAC to see themselves “called to be Baptists with our eyes wide open,” he criticized churches that have been “fooling around” with the government.
Suárez criticized efforts where “the church makes the state legitimate, justifies it, calls it ‘a Christian state.'” He also warned against systems where “the church becomes an instrument of the state.”
Arguing that church-state separation benefits both church and state, Suárez said he has been telling religious and political leaders in Cuba “that this is a topic we must study – now!”
Suárez noted that when Cuba gained independence from Spain, it made an important shift by not listing a church-state union in its constitution. He criticized the previous union of Spanish government leaders and the Catholic Church.
Although the Cuban government under Fidel Castro started with a tolerant approach toward religion, a shift started in response to the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Castro moved toward socialism and made the state officially atheistic.
A constitutional change in 1992 granted religious freedom and allowed non-atheists like Suárez to hold public office, with Suárez serving in the national parliament since 1993.
Suárez noted that today’s separation of church and state in Cuba keeps the state from making one specific faith group the official religion and guarantees the rights of everyone to worship (or not) as they desire.
“The state should not use any of its funds or resources to sustain any religious activities,” Suárez added, as he listed key principles of separation. “The state should not assume religious education.”
Suárez insisted that despite separation, there should be “dialogue between church and state.”
He pointed to the invitation to Caridad Diego of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party’s Central Committee to speak at the COEBAC meeting and the questions and comments posed to her by Cuban Baptists as an example of such dialogue.
“The fact that there is no church-state control does not mean that there is no church-state relation,” he explained. “Once in a while, the church flips on the blinking red light and says, ‘Be careful.'”
Suárez said this is not the church trying to run everything but a form of “prophetic ministry.”
Other speakers at COEBAC’s meeting echoed the comments by Suárez.
Uxmal Livio Diaz Rodriguez, the first general secretary of COEBAC, discussed Cuban history and societal issues leading to the organization’s founding in 1974.
Diaz’s assessment included considerations of Spanish colonial rule, American neo-colonial influence, and self-rule following the Revolution.
Diaz noted that part of the impetus for the creation of COEBAC came as some Baptists sought to engage in socio-cultural issues.
After the Cuban Council of Churches considered a resolution condemning the Vietnam War in 1968, the Eastern Baptist Convention (a founding body of the council) withdrew over fears the council was too political. COEBAC sought to fill that void.
Diaz argued that COEBAC sought to fulfill the “social responsibility that God calls Christians to.”
However, he warned that Christians must engage in society without establishing their faith.
As Diaz, Suárez and others noted, “Spanish conquerors came with a cross but also with a sword.”
Suárez similarly argued that Christians must not establish their faith by uniting with the government but should still engage in politics.
“If we want to change things, then we have to get involved in politics,” he said. “We can be a prophetic voice on the policies of the government.”
Eduardo Gonzalez, COEBAC general secretary, similarly insisted “it is our responsibility as followers of Jesus Christ” to push for change.
“We are instruments of God,” he explained. “We’re not going to solve [societal problems] with prayer and fasting; we need action.”
He urged Christians to stop “hiding behind a god not interested in politics, just about the people; a god who is only interested in the soul, and not the body; a god who is not interested in being a friend, but only in being Lord; a god who is only interested in punishment, not love.”
This focus on living as engaged Christians in their society while still respecting the separation of church and state guided early COEBAC leaders like Diaz and Suárez.
Gonzalez hopes a revived COEBAC will help a new generation of Cuban Baptists continue that legacy.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.