Old Time Revisionism—Southern Baptists Seek to Redefine Separation of Church and State

About Frederick Clarkson

A conference at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC a few months ago provided a platform to launch a trial balloon for revising the Christian Right’s contentious and often bizarre approach to separation of church and state. Russell Moore, head of the powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), told participant at AEI’s first Evangelical Leadership Summit that they need to “reclaim” the phrase “separation of church and state,” a term he admitted that “we long ago tossed overboard.”

This is a development worth exploring in some detail.

Russell Moore,

Russell Moore, head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

The Baptist Press reported that Moore declared that separation of church and state “does not mean secularization.” Rather, “It means that the state is limited and does not have lordship over the conscience …” It’s a variation on the old Manichean framing, pitting religion vs. the secular—as if they were mutually exclusive ideas.

Historically, the separation of church and state has been considered to be a necessary prerequisite for the true meaning of religious liberty. The Framers of the Constitution recognized that creating a new nation would require finding a way for people of all faiths (as well as those with no faith) to live in peace and be treated as equals. (Given the history of religious warfare, bigotry, and persecution, that was a tall order, and we are clearly still working on it.)

The secular state does not mean a place where there are no religious people, nor is it opposed to religion generally or to any particular religion, and it is certainly not seeking “lordship” over anyone’s consciences. Rather, the secular state is intended to be neutral in matters of religion—allowing every citizen the freedom to choose for themselves what they will or will not believe in.

And this is where Moore’s argument gets even more slippery.

Moore’s SBC, in alliance with the Roman Catholic bishops, and bodies of conservative evangelicalism, are seeking to craft zones of exemption from reasonable public policies, as we saw in the Hobby Lobby case, and in the introduction of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (crafted in part by the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF) in the states, which seek to limit the scope of LGBTQ civil rights, especially marriage equality.

Historically, religious liberty (or religious freedom) and separation of church and state are about the guarantee of the right of individual conscience, against the excesses of both the state and powerful religious institutions.

Thus it is important to note that what the SBC and the wider Christian Right has “tossed overboard”, is actually the traditional Baptist understanding of the term. Before it departed in the wake of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, the SBC was a member of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Today, the Joint Committee represents 15 Baptist entities in Washington, DC (which takes no position on marriage equality) and summarizes the traditional Baptist view:

“Baptists have valued religious freedom and separation of church and state because they suffered the hard lessons of history. From jail cells in England to stockades in Massachusetts Bay to whipping posts in Virginia, early Baptists experienced firsthand the pain of persecution — the heartache and bloodshed caused by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.”

“[R]eligious liberty,” the Joint Committee concludes, “is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other. Separation has been good for both church and state.”

Interestingly, Moore also took a more nuanced view of Islam than some of his co-belligerents on the Christian Right, while simultaneously suggesting that the common enemy is actually secular government, which he sees as a religion unto itself.

Moore says that conservative evangelicals, for example, do not have to agree with Islam to oppose local governmental efforts to zone “a mosque out of existence.” But they should do so in order to oppose the “power to the mayor and the city council to hand down theological edicts.” If city government can zone one group out of town “on the basis of what they believe,” Moore insists, “[it] will in the fullness of time drive us all out.”

These are the types of clever arguments that are going to continue to be the stuff of politics for the foreseeable future. But they are a contemporary twist on the same hoary old casting of secular government as the anti-religious devil out to squash all religious expression and to drive institutions from the public square.

One-time Southern Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson claimed in 1993 that the “radical left … kept us in submission because they have talked about the separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Of course, SBC Baptists have not been alone in making outlandish claims. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a conservative Catholic, recently distinguished himself by claiming “the words ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the U.S. Constitution, but it was in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. That’s where it very, very comfortably sat, not in ours.”  Santorum and his ilk are correct that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution, but the principle certainly is. The U.S. Supreme Court has found it to be a useful and authoritative shorthand phrase to describe the Constitution’s approach to religion and government.

History is Powerful

The battle for the story of religion in America has been a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the so-called culture wars. But Brent Walker of the Joint Committee, for one, has taken on the man who is arguably the leading culture warrior of Christian historical revisionism, David Barton. He notably debunked Barton’s claim that when Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “separation of church and state” in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, Jefferson meant that there is a “one directional wall”—to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from capturing the government.

Walker wrote that “there is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that” Jefferson thought of the wall of separation between church and state as being “one directional.” In any case, Walker wrote, “most scholars would argue that he was more concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa.”

Russell Moore, nevertheless, sounded decidedly Bartonesque when earlier this year he argued “…that the state has no business in recreating marriage.” He failed to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is sacred in other religious traditions, while urging the federal government to enforce his particular notion of religious marriage, “by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.”

But he then raised one of the wild bogeyman of the debate about marriage equality—that the government would compel a church to marry someone against their will.

“If the state ever attempts to force us to call marriage that which is not marriage in our churches and ceremonies, let’s obey God, even if that means we sing our wedding hymns in the prison block.”

It is easy for Moore and his ilk to suggest that Christian martyrs should go to prison out of principle—for something that has never happened and that no has argued should.  But there are a lot of religious and non-religious Americans who are fighting every day for the rights of all, and not just their favorite brands—including a lot of Baptists and, as Jefferson once put it, “Infidels of every Denomination,” and even Moore’s much derided secularists.

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Frederick Clarkson is a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. He co-founded the group blog Talk To Action and authored Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.