During one of multiple trips to the Missouri Capitol earlier this year, I listened in the car as NPR did a piece about the Tom Petty song, “I Won’t Back Down.”
The story included them playing the song several times as they not only played Petty’s version but also some famous covers. The last version was the best – as even Petty admitted.
With the Capitol in sight as I looked for a parking spot, I listened to an elderly Johnny Cash.
Walking into the Capitol to testify against a troubling church-state bill, the words echoed through my mind: “Well I know what’s right, I got just one life in a world that keeps on pushin’ me around, but I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down.”
Now, when I head to the Capitol to testify or advocate, I pull up Cash’s cover of that song on my phone. It’s my fight song in the struggle against Christian nationalism. And I won’t back down.
Although testifying just once over the previous four years, I found myself in the witness seat five times this year as I testified against four bills designed to chip away at our historic church-state separation.
Three of the bills came out of the “Project Blitz” playbook created by fundamentalist Christians, which includes model legislation for lawmakers to just copy, paste and submit. And lawmakers in more than a dozen states did exactly that this year.
In Missouri, the bills included multiple ones pushing for teaching the Bible in public schools and one mandating public schools place “In God We Trust” in a prominent location.
Other Project Blitz bills include efforts to carve out special exemptions for fundamentalist religious beliefs and ones that gut discrimination protections for atheists, LGBTQ persons and other targeted minorities.
Each of the four sponsoring lawmakers in Missouri professed to be a Christian; two even claimed to be Baptist.
Those who testified for the bills included Southern Baptist leaders and other Christian lobbyists.
So, I showed up to offer an alternative vision. A voice crying in the political wilderness, much as Baptists have done for more than 400 years by pushing – often from the minority – for religious liberty for all. And I won’t back down.
Twice, I was the only person to testify against the legislation. Another time it was just me and an atheist. Another time it, I was joined by several atheists and Satanists. And the other time, multiple other Baptists came with me to side with atheists, Satanists and Muslims.
Reports I’ve seen from other states show similar results, with a few Baptists showing up sometimes to testify and no Christian opposition at other times.
Once I identified myself as a Baptist minister opposing the various pieces of legislation, I noticed the surprise on the faces of some lawmakers. They didn’t expect a Christian to oppose Christian nationalism.
Yet, I recognize that Christian nationalism is harmful to the gospel witness. The separation of church and state is good for both.
As Tony Campolo famously put it: “Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It may not do much to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.” We must preach that message. And I won’t back down.
But more than just harming our churches, I also oppose Christian nationalism because it’s not actually Christian. And this is not a new belief under the sun. That’s precisely what Baptists have argued for centuries.
As the first Baptist in the U.S., Roger Williams, put it, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” Forcing such worship upon children through our public schools is even worse. And I won’t back down.
Thus, I believe Christians should oppose Christian nationalism. But Baptists should especially feel this calling because religious liberty for all is in our DNA.
As I’ve seen in Missouri, if Baptists don’t show up to support church-state separation, there may not be a Christian voice on that side at all.
Let us recommit ourselves to this godly task. For Christian nationalism comes not from the Spirit.
James Madison, the father of our First Amendment thanks to influence of Baptists upon him, wrote to criticize “that diabolical Hell-conceived principle of persecution.”
And colonial Baptist preacher Isaac Backus condemned “this hellish tyranny” since the time of Constantine of uniting the church with the state’s sword.
So, next year I’ll be back at the state Capitol – and I hope others will show up at theirs – to testify against Christian nationalism whenever it pops up.
And as I prepare to head in, I’ll listen to the Man in Black: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on Christians opposing Christian nationalism. It is published in conjunction with the launch of a BJC-led initiative ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org. The previous articles in the series are:
US Christians Speak Out Against Christian Nationalism | EthicsDaily.com staff
Threat of Christian Nationalism Has Reached High Tide | Amanda Tyler
Why Christian Nationalism Cannot Tolerate Crucified King | Jakob Topper
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.