The American tradition of religious liberty, ensconced in the U.S. Constitution and more fully elaborated in the Bill of Rights, owes much to Baptist belief and practice. But the Baptist contribution to religious liberty, especially the principle of separation of church and state, is often overlooked. (Engraved print depicting Roger Williams, a prominent Baptist voice, meeting with the Narragansett Indians. Published in 1856, public domain)
The American tradition of religious liberty, ensconced in the U.S. Constitution and more fully elaborated in the Bill of Rights, owes much to Baptist belief and practice. But the Baptist contribution to religious liberty, especially the principle of separation of church and state, is often overlooked.
Baptists were first religious group to adopt separation of church and state
Beginning in the early 17th century, Baptists were the first religious group to adopt separation of church and state as a fundamental article of faith.
Early Baptists sought the freedom to worship God as they believed the Scriptures taught. They understood religious liberty to be a principle that would apply to all persons, not one manufactured to advance only their own interests.
Baptists grounded their advocacy of religious liberty primarily in the New Testament.
While never denying proper authority to civil rulers, Baptists did not accede to the notion that the New Testament gave civil rulers any authority whatsoever to compel religious belief. Rather, religious commitment was a matter between the human person and God, and civil magistrates should respect the religious conscience of all persons. Baptists fundamentally rejected any policy that afforded the state the “divine” authority to compel or even guide people in matters of religion.
Baptists supported religious liberty for all
A leading Baptist theologian of the twentieth century, E. Y. Mullins, contended that religious liberty is the greatest of human rights. In support of the Baptist notion of religious liberty for all, he asserted that, first, no human authority should come between a human soul and God, because each person has the right to direct access to God, and, second, each person is inherently entitled to search for truth in religion.
Jesus, who exemplified this individual liberty, did not assert his divine authority to compel belief; instead, he lived and taught the truth. Individuals are then responsible for discovering the messiahship revealed to them (Mullins 1997: 89).
The vigorous promotion of religious liberty has been a central tenet of Baptist faith and practice for centuries. Baptists have been on the frontlines in combating religious oppression everywhere it occurs, both at home and abroad. According to traditional Baptist belief, a government that gives preferential treatment to certain religious beliefs breaches the eternal and inalienable rights of each individual—and disobeys the will of God.
Baptists have been strong worldwide advocates for religious liberty
Baptists have consistently opposed governments that establish certain religions, advance mere toleration as opposed to complete religious freedom, become advocates for a particular view of the religious life, or proscribe the reasonable religious practices of any faith group—in short, inordinately mix church and state. Prominent Baptist voices have been Roger Williams and John Clarke in the 17th century, Isaac Backus and John Leland in the eighteenth and 19th centuries, and E. Y. Mullins, George W. Truett, J. M. Dawson, and James E. Wood Jr. in the 20th century.
In the 20th century, several Baptist organizations began to distinguish themselves, nationally and internationally, in becoming strong advocates for religious liberty. On the international scene, the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) was formed in 1905, nearly three hundred years after the formation of the earliest Baptist church in England in 1612. The BWA has consistently challenged Baptists worldwide to remain committed to their vital denominational principles and heritage, including religious liberty.
The BWA has fought religious persecution and oppression in countries such as the former Soviet Union, Spain, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Liberia, and South Africa. In the United States, the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (BJC) serves as the principal Baptist voice to the U.S. government on a wide range of religious liberty issues. The BJC opposes state support of parochial schools, state-supported religion in the public schools, appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and a “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution, but it has strongly supported legislation designed to protect religious liberty, such as the Equal Access Act (1984) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993).
Southern Baptists called for moral reform through government advancement of religion
In 1988 the Southern Baptist Convention took the first steps toward creating its own public-policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and subsequently withdrew its support of the BJC. The ERLC represents more conservative Baptists, who, based on the belief that secularism is overtaking American culture, have sometimes called for moral reform achieved through the government’s advancement of religion.
For example, it has advocated creating more opportunities for religious activity in the public schools, making more government dollars available for religious education, and allowing postings of the Ten Commandments and other religious texts in public buildings.
Its view generally is that only a loosening of the constitutional prohibitions on government involvement in religion can stem the tide of moral decline. Traditional, more moderate Baptists, usually identified with the BJC, resist this trend as an encroachment on church-state separation.
This article was originally published in 2009. Derek H. Davis is the former director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and editor of Journal of Church and State. He is also the former director of the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor Center for Religious Liberty. He now practices law in Dallas, Texas. He is the author or editor of nineteen books and has also published more than 150 articles in various journals and periodicals. He serves numerous organizations given to the protection of religious freedom in American and international contexts.Send Feedback on this article