Faith in Public Live Part 2: Mainstream Baptist on Revisionist History

August 18, 2006, 3:47 pm | Posted by

Dear Randall,

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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Faith in Public Live: Randall Balmer and Mainstream Baptist

August 18, 2006, 12:12 pm | Posted by

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.

Dear Bruce,

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,

Randall Balmer

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What’s New in the Blogosphere: The Weekly Roundup

August 16, 2006, 2:33 pm | Posted by

Pastor Dan at Street Prophets catches the hypocrisy of Pat Robertson, who’s apparently not going to win any humanitarian awards. Also, great collection of stats on the conflict. “Lebanese economists have cut growth forecasts to zero or below from 5-6 percent. Some say the economy could shrink by 2-3 percent, with the tourism sector particularly hard hit.” Yeah, that’ll drive out the terrorists!

David Buckley’s got a good Boston Globe cartoon on Lieberman over at Faith in Public Life.

For “Moore” Lieberman hilarity catch JSpot.

Michelle, of Metacentricies, posts an interesting round up of environmental and tech news . Check out the link to the Washington Post on Cheney’s wacky comments about the majority of Americans supporting al Qaeda.

If you are interested in some possible US gov. repercussions of the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict catch Sy Hersh in the current New Yorker. Money quote:

Some current and former intelligence officials who were interviewed for this article believe that Rumsfeld disagrees with Bush and Cheney about the American role in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. The U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said that “there was a feeling that Rumsfeld was jaded in his approach to the Israeli war.” He added, “Air power and the use of a few Special Forces had worked in Afghanistan, and he tried to do it again in Iraq. It was the same idea, but it didn’t work. He thought that Hezbollah was too dug in and the Israeli attack plan would not work, and the last thing he wanted was another war on his shift that would put the American forces in Iraq in greater jeopardy.”

Always musing and Catholic, Even the Devils Believe reflects on reasons for war. “I guess the question is whether pacifism is a principled position or just a rhetorical one,” he wonders.

Radical Torah posts on Lebanon Through the Lens of Tisha B’Av. And Islamicate notes a Newsweek article about how Jews deserted Lieberman.

The Shalom Center lists Ten Ways to Save the Lives of Abraham’s Children.

Reverend Mommy posts about working on the CPE.

If you are interested in the politics of the Anglican communion, be sure to read Father Jake Stops the World. He reprints a recent Coats article from Episcopal Majority. He’s got 58 comments on it the last I checked.

And, (pro-Israel, pro-Arab, pro-peace) doesn’t pull punches: no matter which way I head these days in the pro-Israel world — Jewish or Christian right — it looks like I am going to Hell.

Mainstream Baptist marks the loss of church/state separation champion Robert Alley.

Xpatriated Texan writes about the Limits of Greed.

And finally, speaking of limits, Talk to Action points out the connection between politics and the tribulation. Good God, the end to that needs to be neigh.

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Cartoon to Start the Day

August 15, 2006, 11:06 am | Posted by

A good laugh from yesterday’s Boston Globe.

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Down, Religious Right Groups Lie, Role Over

August 9, 2006, 2:59 pm | Posted by

Today, the Center for American Progress reports that:

Focus on the Family has mailed brochures to more than 90,000 Missouri homes, arguing that stem cell research under the Missouri ballot initiative would exploit women by luring them into dangerous egg donations. The brochure, “Women’s voices against cloning,” quotes several women’s organizations to show “the risks that this measure [Missouri ballot initiative] poses to women’s health.” The Progress Report spoke with several of the women’s organizations quoted in the brochure who said that Focus on the Family misrepresented their positions and they disagree with the organization’s aims to ban stem cell research. Judy Norsigian, author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, said that while she has some concerns about the somatic cell nuclear transplant (SCNT) technique, she is actually “very supportive of most embryonic stem cell research.”

This follows a disturbing trend among right wing religious groups, one of not checking their facts and even mispresenting reality.

For example, the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures states that the opponents’ argument, that supporters of the Stem Cell Initiative “have a ‘profit motive’ for wanting to pursue stem cell cures, is false and absurd. The truth is, the major medical institutions involved in stem cell research in Missouri – such as the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Washington University School of Medicine and the University of Missouri – are non-profit institutions.”

Yesterday, the Colorado Springs Independent reported that Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals attacked the Christian Coalition. Why? Because according to him (not the New York Times) the Christian Coalition twisted words. According to his associate pastor, “he was saying the Christian Coalition is not a reliable source of information for Christians.” Ouch!

And finally, the Columbus Dispatch reports:

By Thursday, [GOP] state Chairman Robert T. Bennett knew the party had been caught red-handed and issued an apology to the victim, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the Democratic nominee for governor. But the scurrilous mission had been accomplished: Let the whispering campaign begin.

The attack had nothing to do with records or resumes or policy. It was brutally personal — and a lie. The message the GOP had asked its followers to spread across the Ohioscape is that Strickland and his wife are gay, never mind their nearly 20 years of marriage.

In yet another perversion of religion, the state party hired a conservative Christian to do the dirty work, using a computer at party headquarters to spread the rumor via e-mail to “profamily” conservatives. Gary Lankford, headmaster of a Christian home school, started in early July as the Ohio GOP’s “social conservative coordinator.”

That’s four recent examples. Whether a person is progressive or conservative, sloppy research and deliberate dishonesty hurts the cause of faith. As became clear in Ralph Reed’s Georgia defeat, decent folks with faith-full traditions of honesty and good work are beginning to see in the endorsement of Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and Restoration Ohio a dogged reason to doubt.

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