Virginia Baptists & Religious Liberty

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  First Amendment to the United States Constitution

One of America’s greatest freedoms perhaps has spawned more controversy than all of our country’s other freedoms combined.  What makes the First Amendment ripe for disagreement and debate has more to do with what it does not say than for what it does.  Let me demonstrate.

After thousands of readings — from middle school social studies classes to law school to writing this post — I have looked in vain for the words “separation of church and state” in the body of the First Amendment.  Funny thing is, I have never been able to find those words in the text. 

Of course, famously written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, have never been a part of the Bill of Rights.  But, to hear Virginia Baptists tell it, you would think that Jefferson and Madison included this controversial language as part of our nation’s most well-known amendment.

At this year’ annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Religious Liberty Committee of the BGAV introduced a resolution entitled, “Inaccurate history threatens religious liberty.”  The impetus driving the Committee was articulated by Chairman Rob James:

“One of the things that frightened us [the committee] was that the next 10 years of social-studies textbooks would raise questions about the founding of this country and to what extent, if at all, the idea of separation of church and state is part of our national commitment”

You see, the recent revisions of history textbooks by conservative Christians on the Texas State Board of Education caused the consternation among members of the Religious Liberty Committee which led to the writing and introduction of the resolution. 

The resolution itself, which originally singled out  “David Barton, W. Cleon Skousen and ‘some Reconstructionist authors’ who the committee said had engaged in “systematic efforts” to revise American history” was subsequently revised by the committee to remove any reference to the aforementioned individuals.

However, front and center in this resolution was the oft-repeated notion of the “separation of church and state.”  In fact, the committee’s language almost seems to indicate that they believe that this phrase was actually included in the First Amendment:

“Whereas, the Baptist principles of religious liberty and its safeguard, separation of church and state (or government neutrality toward all religions and nonreligion), are well grounded in this nation’s history, and

Whereas, the labors of Virginians, notably Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison, and the Baptist minister John Leland, were crucial in the historic events that made these two principles part of our nation’s Bill of Rights, and . . .”  (emphasis added)

Even in the BGAV, this resolution, trumpeting the “separation of church and state,” was not without controversy itself.  Just the very mention of those words cause some conservatives pastors (yes, there still are conservative pastors in the BGAV) to react negatively and with an understandable dose of suspicion. 

I should know.  For 5 1/2 years, I was one of those conservative pastors in the BGAV.  And, for full disclosure, I also had the privilege of serving on the Religious Liberty Committee before I moved to New Mexico.

As a member of the committee, I brought a conservative voice and perspective to religious liberty issues that affected Virginia Baptists.  While I did not necessarily agree with the other members on every issue that we tackled, there was a mutual respect and gracious attitude that prevailed.  Maybe it was the genteel spirit which characterizes Virginia Baptists, but there was never any contention or rancor between myself and the more “moderate” members of the Religious Liberty Committee, even when we did not see eye-to-eye.

I thoroughly enjoyed serving with my fellow Virginia Baptists on this important committee.  I do not know if there are currently more “conservative” members of the committee nor do I presume to know why the committee chose the particular language that they did, but I would have avoided loaded language like “separation of church and state.”

No matter what that phrase may have originally meant and no matter what some Virginia Baptists think that it means, that language has come to mean different things to different people.  Joseph Giles, pastor of James Square Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Va., no doubt spoke for many conservatives when he said:

“The definition of separation of church and state today is not what the man who coined the phrase meant by it.  Whereas Jefferson understood the concept to mean that government could not coerce belief, many today take it to mean that religious faith should be excluded from public life.  The notion [of separation of church and state] held by people today is the real revisionism.”

Even though the resolution passed overwhelmingly, I would have advocated that the “separation of church and state” language not be included.  Why?  Because even though it might feel good for some to use this phrase, it is unnecessary.  One could simply use the language of the First Amendment itself to craft a resolution expressing Virginia Baptists’ strong support for the principles of religious liberty.

Agree or disagree, Virginia Baptists always give their fellow Baptists something to think about.  Their strong championing of the First Amendment will not always be appreciated nor understood by some within the Baptist family.  We may not always see things the same way that our brothers and sisters do in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  When that happens, might we remember to thank God for the wonderful religious liberty that we enjoy in America!  And, please remember to thank our veterans for their sacrifice so that we might be continue to be a free people in a free land!

22 comments for “Virginia Baptists & Religious Liberty

  1. K Gray
    November 11, 2010 at 8:16 AM

    Separation of church and state is a legal, secular principle. Its usual effect is a kind of neutrality or equality, treating all religions in the same way.

    Is it God-pleasing?

    I once asked a pastor “What is the Biblical basis for separation of church and state?” He sent me a long article; it was not bad. But the question is a good one. Most people respond in one of these ways: (1) the First Amendment, Danbury, and Supreme Court cases (traditional legal response); (2) maintaining freedom to worship for everyone, particularly ourselves, is best (political freedom response); and/or (3) you can’t coerce faith (the free will response). All good, but not completely on the mark. Seems like God’s ways sometimes vary from separation of church and state. That can be a scary idea.

    So what bothers many of us is when separation of church and state is elevated to top priority, leading to strange results. Must Baptists, in order to be ‘true to Baptist principles,’ actively speak out in support of mosque-building? Must Baptists work hard to make sure that no federal dollar is used for a Catholic hospital which declines to perform abortions (and the hospital eventually closes for that reason?). Must we maintain a Baptist presence on presidential task forces to help ensure that para-church organizations cannot refuse to hire, say, Wiccans, or cannot limit rental of their wedding facilities to heterosexual weddings?

    We need the mind of Christ.

    • November 11, 2010 at 8:40 AM

      Karen,

      Thanks for stopping by. I think your analysis is spot on! When I was in Virginia and serving on the Religious Liberty Committee, I had the discussion about what “separation of church and state” means. I could support the concept in terms of not having government interfere with religion, but I could not support the concept of using it as some sort of hammer to eliminate any hint of religion in the public square. The questions that you ask in relation to its being elevated to a top priority are very good. I think that some, such as in Virginia, have so made the “separation of church and state” (which is no where in the Constitution or Bill of Rights) a sacrosanct idea that any deviation from it causes fear and anxiety. One can still be for religious liberty and not necessarily give all out embrace to “sepation of church and state.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts this morning. God bless,

      Howell

  2. K Gray
    November 11, 2010 at 8:34 AM

    Separation of church and state is a legal, secular principle.

    Is it always God-pleasing?

    I once asked a pastor “What is the Biblical basis for separation of church and state?” He sent me a long article; it was not bad. But the question is a good one. Most people would respond with (1) the First Amendment, Danbury, and Supreme Court cases (traditional legal response); (2) freedom of worship for everyone, particularly ourselves, is best (political freedom response); (3) render unto Caesar (quick Bible respone) and/or (4) you can’t coerce faith (free will response). All good, but not completely on the mark. Seems like God’s ways sometimes vary from separation of church and state — scary idea!

    But we can’t seem to think this through. Must Baptists, in order to be ‘true to Baptist principles,’ actively speak out and petition in support of mosque-building? Must Baptists work hard to make sure that no federal dollar is used for a Catholic hospital which declines to perform abortions (and the hospital then closes or moves?). Must we maintain a Baptist presence on presidential task forces to help ensure that para-church organizations cannot refuse to hire, say, Wiccans, or cannot limit rental of their facilities to heterosexual weddings?

    That’s what the Pope calls the “tyranny of relativism.”

    We need the mind of Christ.

  3. Paul Skousen
    November 11, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    Thank you Howell for helping us all think this through. My father, W. Cleon Skousen, wrote “The Five Thousand Year Leap” that is being bashed and beat up right now, and I wish those objectors could hear dad speak on what he wrote. I’ve been through his files. He has mounds and piles of quotes and letters and statements showing how the Founding Fathers, and pretty much everybody in that day, so grateful, so dependent, so worshipful of God as the author of their victory in their fight for liberty, it is obvious the 1st amendment was written on the assumption God would remain central in our nation’s structure, not neutral, not partisan to this organization or that, but central. Dad tried to summarize that in just a few pages of his book, and I guess it wasn’t strong enough for the nay sayers. Perhaps nothing is. Founders were mostly worried about Catholics, or some other dominant religion, forcing Protestants or others to “be like me” or they couldn’t run for office. That was the essence of the 1st—not to kill off religiou all together. And for that dad is being isolated as “fringe right-wing kook.” Dad is on the other side carrying on the good fight, and we in the family are wondering how best to defend that position. It’s sure difficult in short blogs or comment pages. Thank you for the great work you’re doing. — Paul

    • Paul Skousen
      November 11, 2010 at 10:16 AM

      oops, sorry about the typos, I’m multitasking over here, something I don’t do well!!!–P

    • November 11, 2010 at 11:37 AM

      Paul,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. When I write a post, I never know who might end up reading it. Having been out of Virginia for over three years, I was not familiar with your dad’s writings. I think that it was a mistake for the committee to have included specific individuals, like your father, in the body of the resolution. And, certainly with your dad having gone on to be with the Lord, I don’t think it fair to name someone who can no longer defend their work here on earth.

      Even though I have not read your father’s writings, I highly doubt that he was the “right-wing kook” that some are portraying. Even though America today has become highly secularized and would be considered post-modern, post-Christian, I don’t think that this takes away from the facts of our nation’s founding. Were we a Christian nation in the sense that we had a state church like in England? Of course not. Were we a Christian nation in the sense that all the founders — even Jefferson — believed in what we would know as the Judeo-Christian God? Of course. To argue that this country was not founded upon Christian ideals is to tilt at windmills.

      I think that your defend the position of your father with the facts of history. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “facts are stubborn things.” People, when confronted with the facts, usally try to argue their feelings. Unfortunately, I think that the Religious Liberty Committee of the BGAV, as evidenced by the language of the resolution and the interview with Rob James, the Chairman of the committee, reacted to the Texas Board of Education. Instead of saying what Virginia Baptists are postively for, they said what they are against. One has the liberty to do that, but one’s position, I think, is always stronger when you argue for what you are for rather than what you are against. Whether in politics, government, or in the case of your family, I think staying positive is always a good place to start.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts about your dad. I’m sure he would be proud of your carrying on the good fight here on earth. God bless,

      Howell

      • Paul Skousen
        November 11, 2010 at 12:15 PM

        Dear Howell,

        Thank you for your kind words and counsel. I think you’re exactly right. I don’t know if you heard of Rev. Don Sills? Rev. Sills was the kind of great Baptist minister who was around forever and had on his wall a photo of himself with Pres. Carter, Pres. Reagan, Pres. Bush, Pres. Clinton, and was at the forefront of many challenges to these same religion issues. He started “Coalition for Religious Freedom,” among other things. He and dad were best friends for 25 years and worked together to put on seminars and teach the historical roots of America, promoting a restoration of the fundamental freedom principles. For many years Rev. Sills and dad criss-crossed the nation, working to unite different faiths under the common leadership of the Lord’s pattern for real freedom. Those were wonderful years, they taught their seminars to about 2 million over a 20 year period. Dad passed 4 years ago, Rev. Sills passed this last June. He lived in Virginia, too.

        Thanks for “facts are stubborn things.” We’ll get those facts out in front. It’s so very odd that the anti-Christian or anti-religion crowd neglects to observe that the very SAME year the Constitution was signed, Congress also passed the Northwest Ordinance, stating: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” I realize I’m preaching to the choir on all this, please forgive me, but that statement sure sounds like the Founders expected religion to be taught in schools, oh my heavens.

        Thanks again Howell, and I fully believe the destiny of this nation is in the hands of the Lord, and he’s expecting all of us to share the burden of carrying forward His works, if we expect to enjoy them. That’s why I appreciate the sacrifices you’re making. As for me, I’m a writer, so I’ll get back to that and see if I can’t capture the essence of these issues for delivery to the deaf ears who think our woes are handled only at the voting booth. Oh that they were.

        Many cheers,
        –Paul

        • November 11, 2010 at 2:55 PM

          Paul,

          Thank you for sharing a bit about your father’s ministry and that of Rev. Sills. If memory serves, I think that most, if not all, of the colonies had some kind of established religion at the time that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified. This, along with your reference to the Northwest Ordinance, would seem to indicate that this so-called “wall of separation between church and state” was not what modern-day proponents seem to think. Hope your writing goes well and that God will continue to bless your work. God bless,

          Howell

  4. K Gray
    November 11, 2010 at 7:59 PM

    Wrote, posted, edited, posted. Sorry for the double post!

    • November 11, 2010 at 8:04 PM

      Karen,

      Not a problem. Since you added the Pope’s quote, we will not count it as a double post! 🙂 Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

  5. November 12, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    I hope Paul Skousen will stay with this conversation for a while and Howell continues to engage as it could be elevated considerably if Paul and Howell read Bob Dylan’s Biographer Sean Wilentz recent New Yorker piece on Cleon Skousen and the Birch Society’s influence on the Tea Party.
    As Sarah Posner has recently written about the influence of Parishioner Kimbrell on SBC EX Com Director Frank Page, at religion Dispatches, this could become an interesting and significant conversation indeed.
    In addition to the New Yorker piece, a reading of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their eyes could add as well.
    Ronald Reagan did say Facts are Stubborn Things; but as we all know and the Scriptures attest and the Parables of Jesus Affirm, as for Truth and Virtue the Interpretation and Implementation of Facts often call for higher discernment than just a repetition of facts.

    • November 12, 2010 at 1:29 PM

      Here is a link to the Wilentz piece on Cleon Skousen in Oct 13 New Yorker. Notice at the site Wilentz had a Q and A exchange the next day online; and you can read that transcript as well:

      http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/18/101018fa_fact_wilentz?currentPage=all

      • Paul Skousen
        November 12, 2010 at 5:17 PM

        Hi Stephen, thanks for that link. I read the New Yorker piece the night before they published it and had started preparing some responses to allegations that Wilentz makes. He bases his commentary on a piece by Alex Zaitchik in http://www.salon.com, who bases his allegations on another guy named Ernie Lazar. All three are building houses on a sandy foundation. The smears against my father come largely from our former mayor back in 1960, a crooked mayor who became distrusted on multiple fronts. He’s the one who said dad gave half-truths, he’s the guy who said dad ran his police force like a gestapo, he’s the guy who made all the character-assassination claims—way back in 1960, and the smear tacticians have to reach back FIFTY years to find such direct character assassinations. And that’s how they seek to undermine Beck and the Tea Party folks. For me, these issues all have the same root—that a moral and religious people do not need many controls as we have today. Teach them correct principles and they govern themselves. Dad has faced such smear campaigns all his life, but truth sticks. The 45 Communist goals from his “The Naked Communist” sounded like nasty pipe dreams, or nightmares, when he wrote them back in 1958. Now nearly all are a reality. While Reagan did say facts are stubborn things, John Adams said it first during the famous Boston Massacre trial. It is those stubborn facts that I’m working to get out, and I think we all are, to help show that religious people conduct themselves well when freedom abounds. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters, as Franklin said, and that’s where we are today, I believe. My older brothers grew up in schools that opened with prayer … in California. Arbitrary prayers, not always Christian. It introduced everyone to their classmates’ culture and beliefs. It expanded tolerance and understanding, unlike today where all is banned for fear, I suppose, we might learn something. I’m way off topic here, I apologize. I hear dinner is ready, time to hit “post comment,” and apologize for typos I didn’t see, and head upstairs. Best to you in all, –Paul

    • November 12, 2010 at 5:32 PM

      Stephen,

      I finished reading the Sarah Posner article at RD and started reading (the rather lengthy) New Yorker article that you linked to. Without wading out into the weeds, let me respond by saying that the issues of religious liberty and our nation’s “Christian” founding are still very much tied together, both in the religious world and in the political world. Sometimes those two worlds become intertwined, which may not necessarily be a good thing. Let me explain. The church is called to be the church. Only the church is given the mandate of the Great Commission. The government has not been given that role. The Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation, for those who believe.” It will be the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the government or politics, that truly transforms lives. To the extent that Christians, especially pastors, get their focus off of the Gospel and onto politics, then we will be in trouble.

      That being said, there can be no arugment that this nation’s history, to a certain extent (large, medium, or small) is tied to the religious backgrounds of the founders. Those founders were overwhelmingly from a Judeo-Christian background, but obviously no one is going to claim Thomas Jefferson as an orthodox Christian. To deny the religious heritage of our nation is both wrong and foolish. Facts are stubborn things and we do have to be discerning when trying to interpret those facts, but we cannot wish away certain things that we simply do not like. At the same time, we live in a culture that is thoroughly post-modern, post-Christian. With only about 10% of Christians operating from a Biblical worldview, it has no practical affect today to say that we were founded upon Christian values. That may be true (and I believe it is), but the reality on the ground today is that we must minister in the present, not the past.

      Which brings me to my last point on the intertwining of religion and politics. I am a political animal. I received a B.A. in Political Science from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and then went on to get a law degree from F.S.U. I love politics and I love following politics. But, when I became a pastor, my first priority became the Gospel. Should Christians be involved in the public square? Yes. Should our faith inform how we vote? Absolutely. Should a politician’s faith inform how they view the world and how they vote? I believe the answer is yes because the Constitution does not require us to check our faith at the door. However, as Christians, and especially as pastors and the church, we must never forget our main mission, which is the Great Commission. When we get so involved in politics that we begin to think that the “right” people in office will have a transformative effect (which, to a certain extent, it will), we lose sight of the Gospel, which will have THE transformative effect that will truly change lives.

      I know this is a bit long, but I wanted to share my thoughts. I think that many Baptists could agree on religious liberty issues, but when loaded language is used — on either side of the divide — I don’t think that it is helpful to the dialogue. Thanks for your thoughts and for the links. God bless,

      Howell

  6. Bennett Willis
    November 12, 2010 at 1:57 PM

    I read your posting several times and was never sure quite what your point was. Then I ran across a quote that seems to support what I regard as the historic Baptist logic—despite being addressed to another religion.

    When he addresses Muslims, Sanneh cautions them to consider lessons learned by the medieval Christian church. Ally religion too closely to the state, and you open your faith to corruption and abuse of power. Christian experiments with church-state blending, whether in Geneva under Calvin, Britain under Cromwell, or Spain and Latin America under the Inquisition, may have worked for a time but inevitably provoked a backlash. In fundamentalist Iran, a similar backlash is already in motion. As one concerned Iranian intellectual told a visiting Harvard professor, “These young people may be lost to Islam forever. … They follow the conventions of Islamic dress and custom, because they are required to do so by law, but inside their hearts are hollow and cynical. We are losing an entire generation of unbelievers in our zeal to force conformity.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/july/23.64.html

    Do you advocate closer relationship between the government and church? My thought would be that the constitution forbids the government from controlling the church and we should have sense enough not to go there ourselves. The government (like most large organizations) cannot involve itself with anything with soon seeking to control some (or much) of the other organization.

    I personally feel that all monetary contributions should in some way be anonymous (as they are in my church)—unless you are trying to influence the recipient of the money. And if you are trying to influence, then all should recognize this.

    This is a very interesting and (I think) relevant review even though its topic/title seems to be quite different. Philip Yancey: A Living Stream in the Desert http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/november/20.30.html

    • Bennett Willis
      November 12, 2010 at 1:58 PM

      I started italics but apparently don’t know how to stop it. I need to find a note that a commenter on some blog wrote on how to do these things. 🙂

      Oh well…

    • November 12, 2010 at 4:11 PM

      Bennett,

      I don’t do italics in some comments on other blogs because I’m not quite sure how to do it, so no problem with the italics. I think I understood what you are saying. I DO NOT advocate a closer relationship between the government and the church. And, that goes even if there are folks I like that are in charge of government. A free church in a free state always seems best. You are entirely correct when you talk of government contol of an organization once it gets involved. That is why our church’s preschool does not take one dime in govenment funding, including no funding for food or tuition assistance.

      The main point I was trying to make, although perhaps not as clear as I could have, is that the phrase “separation of church and state” has multiple meanings. If, by using it, you mean that government should not interfere in the affairs of the church, then I would wholeheartedly agree. However, what many, including I think some Virginia Baptists, mean by it (I’ve had those convesations with on the Religious Liberty Committee when I was a member) is that any scintilla of religion in anything public is forbidden. Some would take it as far as taking any public mention of God out of the public square. If that is what one means by the phrase, then I would disagree. That’s why I think that Virginia Baptists could have issued a positive resolution supporting religious liberty without using a loaded phrase like “separation of church and state.” I think that there can be much more agreement than disagreement if we could get rid of the perjorative language. Hope that clears it. Thanks for your thoughts on this. God bless,

      Howell

  7. November 15, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    Thanks to both Paul and Howell for the civil responses.
    Some of the conversation breaks down into weighing semantics and nuances. That said I can’t see where the folks that have been attracted to the Skousen, Barton or Paige Patterson view of the founding fathers bear the good the better fruit of those who look at the same history and explain the implications like Mark Noll, Jill Lepore, Martin Luther King, Jr.; Baptist Preacher’s son and grand social justice journalist Marshall Frady, Melissa Rogers and others.
    My experience and observations have convinced me there is an affinity between religious fundamentalism and and a Birch Society, conspiratorial view of American History.
    Jill Lepore, Moyers, Noll and the like have consistently rung truer for me than the stream of thought anchored in WA Criswell and Jesse Helms.
    I was reading Jill Lepore further today.

    http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=31498

    And I am following the exchanges between Scott and Gourley at bl.com with interest.

    I commend The PBS Series God in America to the two of you; especially the last hour segment God and Caesar, as well as Andrew Murphy’s Prodigal Nation.

    Had a most fascinating about the reverberations of it all today with a Rhodes Scholar nominee I have known for some 16 years now.

    Like you, Howell, it all continues to fascinate and sometimes bewilder me.

    Please forgive the random nature of my replies here.
    At same time do hope the two of you will weigh into Lepore soon.

    • November 15, 2010 at 5:07 PM

      Stephen,

      I am enjoying the dialogue here as well as with Bruce over at BaptistLife. I do think that there would be a wide area of agreement on many of these issues, although there is going to be some places where we will not be able to come together in agreement. That’s okay as long as we can continue the civil discussion. I come at this from more of a legal/religious viewpoint than from the political/religious viewpoint. I think that there is a middle ground in the religious liberty debate that is conservative, both theologically, legally, and politically. While fundamentalism and conservative politics have a somewhat natural affinity, I do not think that one has to hold to a conspiratorial Birch Society view of religious liberty. When it comes to my views of religious liberty issues and the First Amendment, I am far more persuaded by the legal reasonings of some of the conservatives on the Supreme Court than I am by the purely political conservatives.

      I have not had the chance to watch the “God and Caesar” segment of the PBS special yet. Do you know if it is available online? I also would commend to you a recent Fox News Special hosted by Brit Hume entitle “The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Conservative Movement.” I didn’t watch it as closely as I would have liked the other night, but there was extensive discussion about how mainstream conservatives (i.e., Bill Buckley) marginalized the more extreme conservative elements (i.e., the Birchers). When it comes to my conservatism, I would place myself in the Buckley/Reagan tradition. Obviously, my theological leanings will also shape how I view some of these matters. Thanks again for the continued dialogue. God bless,

      Howell

  8. November 17, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    Yes it is online. And check out at the PBS.org Frontline God In America site the Faithworks option at the GIA homepage testimony of my friend Randall Balmer.

    Was working toward Super panel discussion with him and some other luminaries at an institution of higher ed nearby, but they have disappointed me.

    Couldn’t catch the vision.

    Oh Well, hope you are keeping track of the religiondispatches report on Frank Page and Kimbrell of FBC Taylors.

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