I returned last night from a weekend in North Carolina — a meeting at the National Humanities Center on Saturday, and then on Saturday night a lecture and discussion at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham and on Sunday morning a gathering at the Unitarian Universalist church in Raleigh. The latter two events, as you might guess, centered around Thy Kingdom Come.
I gave a presentation and a short synopsis of the book, including a brief account of the second chapter, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?: Roy’s Rock, Roger Williams, and the First Amendment.” I made my passionate plea for the recovery of the Baptist tradition in America, especially noting the importance of safeguarding the separation of church and state.
The lectures were well-received, but what surprised me somewhat was the number of people who stood during the question-and-answer session to declare that they are real Baptists — meaning that they remain faithful to the Baptist tradition of maintaining the line of separation between church and state. What I found especially striking was the pride in their voices as they affirmed Baptist principles. The audience (well over a hundred in both venues) applauded lustily.
In checking my e-mail messages this morning, I found a kind note from Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee. He thanked me for the book, but he also reminded me that there are indeed a good number of real Baptists left in America, so I’d like to use this post to underscore that fact.
You and your organization of Mainstream Baptists are another example of people who seek to call Baptists back to their birthright. I applaud all of you. Keep up the good fight against the counterfeit Baptists. It’s important for the integrity of the faith, and it’s essential for the future of America.
Keep the faith,
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For the second time in less than a month, radical right leaders (those champions of family values) have used the family of a political candidate as a target for attack. In late July it was the shameful questioning of the sexual orientation of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and his wife. The most recent attack has taken place in Arkansas at the hands of the American Family Association. This email, sent to the AFA’s supporters last week, speaks for itself (hat-tip to the Arkansas Times for the find):
If you are a member of the United Methodist Church, I felt you would be interested in the two sermons preached by Rev. Betsy Singleton, pastor of Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock. If you are not a United Methodist, please forward this to any friends you may have who are United Methodist.
Rev. Singleton is probably better known as being the wife of U.S. Representative Vic Snyder.
Sermon: Is Homosexuality a Sin? — click here
Sermon: Is Christianity the Only Way? — click here
Donald E. Wildmon, Founder and Chairman
American Family Association
The AFA can’t come right out and campaign against Rep. Snyder, so they drop this hint to their base as election season approaches. As usual, the willingness of these groups to manipulate religion for partisan gain seems to know no bounds.
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Dear Randall and Bruce,
First of all, thanks to you both for taking the time to join in this exchange. You’re both experts in this field, so it’s a real treat to have you bouncing ideas off of one another.
I have a feeling that the two of you agree on a good many things about the current state of Baptist thought on the First Amendment. So allow me to throw a question or two out there that may stir the pot a bit. Bruce, I found your closing question compelling, and would like to hear both of you spend a good bit of time actually answering it. Why, in God’s name, are Baptists erecting monuments to Pilgrims and Puritans in Massachusetts?
The well-developed Christian Right religio-political machine undoubtedly has something to do with answering this question. But that seems to me to be only half of the answer. Why has that machine found such fertile ground for its ideas, especially since they seem to fly in the face of so much history? What features of modern American society created the opportunity for such ideological development?
It seems to me that these questions have a lot to do with how one responds to the Christian Right. How do we critique the Right whlie offering an alternative vision that imbues American public life with enough meaning to sustain our republican project? In other words, what different prescription should we offer for the ailments that the Christian Right has manipulated to its own advantage?
Many thanks, and looking forward to how the conversation progresses next week,
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It is truly a delight to be in dialogue with someone who understands real Baptists so well. The chapter on “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” in your new book Thy Kingdom Come is one of the best summations in print regarding the about face that many Baptists have made toward the First Amendment.
For lifelong Baptists like myself, it is hard to believe that the Baptist legacy as advocates for liberty of conscience and separation of church and state could be so thoroughly disowned by the descendants of those who literally paid with their own blood to give it to later generations.
Few who review the original sources for themselves would disagree with your crediting the Separatist-Puritan-Baptist-Seeker Roger Williams with conceiving the metaphor for a “wall of separation” between church and government. Unfortunately, the writings of the revisionist historians and theocrats within the Religious Right have been so widely disseminated and broadcast over the last quarter century that the facts of history are no longer perceived as valid.
I think the concerted effort by the Religious Right to place Decalogue displays on public property comprises the spearhead of a campaign to establish Christianity as this nation’s official religion. This morning’s newspaper reveals that another Ten Commandments monument is being erected on public property in Oklahoma. A decision is still pending over the monument to American theocracy that was erected on the Haskell County Courthouse lawn in Stigler, Oklahoma.
Eighty percent of the population in Haskell County Oklahoma claims to be Baptist. A Baptist minister solicited funds and erected the monument to “‘battle’ against Satan” and to affirm this nation’s “Christian heritage.” The heritage being affirmed, however, has more to do with the “democratic theocracy” of the Massachusetts Bay Colony than with the constitutional republic of the United States of America. The Stigler monument placed the Ten Commandments on one side and the Mayflower Compact on the other.
If more Baptists knew the history of Massachusetts Bay Colony, surely fewer of them would approve of monuments to that legacy. Under their system of law and jurisprudence, Baptists, Quakers and other religious dissenters were severely persecuted.
Persecutions over matters of faith in Massachusetts just began with the banishment of Roger Williams. It escalated from there. In the summer of 1651, John Clarke, John Crandall, and Obadiah Holmes — all members of the Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode Island — were arrested and imprisoned for holding an unauthorized worship service in the home of a blind Baptist named William Witter who lived at Lynn, Massachusetts outside Boston. They were sentenced to be fined or whipped. Fines for Clarke and Crandall were paid by friends. Holmes refused to let friends pay his fine and was publicly whipped on the streets of Boston on September 6, 1651. In 1653, Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard University, refused to have his fourth child baptized as an infant and proclaimed that only believers should be baptized. He was forced to resign from his position and banished from Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1663, John Myles moved an entire Baptist congregation from Wales to escape the religious persecutions authorized by England’s 1662 Act of Uniformity. They first settled in Massachusetts, but by 1667 the authorities forced the congregation to move to the frontier in Rhode Island.
As bad as it was for Baptists, it was worse for Quakers. William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, and William Leddra are listed among the Quaker martyrs in Massachusetts. The last Quaker martyr in Massachusetts, Mary Dyer, was hanged in the Boston Common on June 1, 1660. All died in defiance of a law banning Quakers from Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Why, in God’s name, are Baptists erecting monuments to Pilgrims and Puritans in Massachusetts?
Looking forward to your thoughts,
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Starting today and continuing through early next week, Faith in Public Live is excited to host an exchange between two of the nation’s leading experts on defending the First Amendment. Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (Basic Books). Bruce Prescott blogs under the name Mainstream Baptist,, as well as at the Christian Alliance for Progress and Talk2Action, and is a leading national activist on defending the separation of church and state.
It’s a pleasure to have the chance to trade posts with you to develop some ideas about the current state of the First Amendment in our country today. I hope this first post can serve as a jumping off point for later discussion. I’m interested to see where we agree and where we might have differences of opinion.
Of all the political strategies being pursued these days by leaders of the Religious Right, none is more pernicious than the attempt to eviscerate the First Amendment. By trying to impose public prayer in public schools (students can pray privately any time they wish!), by advocating public funding and school vouchers for use in religious schools and by seeking to emblazon religious sentiments on public places, they try to undermine the separation of church and state, the best friend that religion has ever had.
There is even a movement within the Religious Right, led by David Barton and others, to deny that our nation’s founders intended church and state to be separate. I’ve come to equate these people with the Holocaust deniers and those who debunk global warming — not in the sense of moral equivalence, but in the sense of the brazenness of their denials, all evidence to the contrary. Compounding this betrayal, many of the leaders of the Religious Right, from Pat Robertson and Richard Land to Roy Moore and Rick Scarborough, claim to be Baptists, ignoring altogether that the notion of church-state separation was a Baptist idea.
Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in America, came to the New World as a Puritan minister in Salem, Massachusetts. He quickly ran afoul of the Puritan authorities because he feared that the faith would be compromised by too close an association with the church. Williams wanted to protect, in his words, the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of (again, his words) a “wall of separation.” Williams was expelled from Massachusetts and went to what is now Rhode Island; he formed there a colony that enshrined the ideas of liberty of individual conscience and freedom from state-dictated religion.
Although this notion of separation of church and state was utterly unprecedented in Western culture, the founding fathers, in their wisdom, codified Williams’s ideas into the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Although it is true that Congress continued to pass appropriations for the printing and the distribution of Bibles, for instance, the eventual termination of this practice, far from illustrating that the founders never intended church-state separation, actually shows the beauty of the balance of powers provision of the Constitution. The courts eventually stepped in, as they are Constitutionally empowered to do, and ruled that, in light of the increased pluralism of American society, it was no longer appropriate for the government to be supporting a particular religion.
As one of the expert witnesses in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, I argued that religion has flourished in this nation for more than two centuries precisely because the government has (for the most part, at least) stayed out of the religion business. We Americans are off the charts as reckoned by our belief in God and by our attendance at religious worship. We have in this country a vibrant, salubrious religious culture because we have refused to establish any one religion or denomination, and we have allowed religion to function in a “free market,” where religious entrepreneurs (to extend the metaphor) are free to compete with one another and no one enjoys the sanction of the government.
As a person of faith, I have a further objection to the entanglement of church and state. It ultimately trivializes the faith because it suggests that religion needs the support of the state for legitimacy. When you fetishize the Ten Commandments or demand a ritualized, formal prayer in school or on public occasions, you diminish the faith itself.
That is precisely what Roger Williams, a Baptist, feared.
Looking forward to your reply,
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