Baptists–American, South, and Right (continued)

When I attended the Baptist church, their views of separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, equality, and religious toleration espoused by Roger Williams were strong. Tolerant Baptists may not have been publicly militant about much, but they were militant about the separation of church and state.

  It was easy to predict how American Baptists would react in those days to some prominent church-state issues: prayers in public schools and government aid to parochial schools. For American Baptists the answers were a simple: no and no.

The public prayers profaned God. If one prayed because the state required it, then the prayer came not out of devotion to God, but because of devotion to or fear of the state. This made such a prayer unholy and defiled true religion. If the prayer was uttered, not out of devotion and faith, but merely out of a habit, like saying “Good morning, Miss Ketter” to the teacher each morning, the prayer was still sinful.

          We American Baptists thought that the United States Supreme Court got it right when it held in 1962 that a recitation of a state-written prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment, which prohibits an establishment of religion. Furor around the country, however, resulted. Godlessness would prevail. Communists would ascend. At the time I found this panic amusing. My public school did not have prayers. I believe they were outlawed in Wisconsin, as they were in many–perhaps most–other states. I listened to the rants about the Court’s decision and looked about me and could not figure out what they were going on about. Wisconsin, to my keen eye that was on a vigilant lookout for such things and disappointed when I could not find them, did not seem to be more a hotbed of iniquity than the places that required public prayers. It was clear to me that there was no connection between morality or godly behavior and the recitation of prayers in public schools.

          American Baptists were not alone in accepting the Supreme Court ruling banning school prayers. Southern Baptists agreed. The Southern Baptists came into being in the1840s when they segregated themselves from other Baptists. It should come as no great surprise that race was the dividing factor. The specific issue, as I understand it, was whether slave holders could be missionaries.

But even with the split, Southern Baptists maintained the same doctrinal positions as other Baptists. They believed that the Bible only authorized two sacraments—adult baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. They also were without a hierarchy. There was a Southern Baptist Convention to which churches sent “messengers,” but the pronouncements of the SBC did not bind anyone; they were just recommendations or urgings or food for thought. As with American Baptists, the church was congregation-based with the congregants selecting a minister. And Southern Baptists also believed in the strict separation of church and state. Shortly after the Supreme Court held that public school prayers were unconstitutional, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, praising the decision, said that it was “one of the most powerful blows in our lifetime, maybe since the Constitution was adopted, for the freedom of religion in our lifetime.”

          Soon thereafter, however, Southern Baptists started changing their positions. In 1982, the SBC supported a constitutional amendment that would have allowed individual or group prayer in public schools as long as the government did not require participation in the prayer. (This was a curious proposal since individual prayer was never outlawed, and, of course, silent prayer could not be. Surely, I am not the only one who reached out to the Almighty before a calculus exam. A spoken prayer might run into troubles with school authorities, not because it was a prayer, but because any vocalization in a classroom might be disruptive to school order. Part of the power of prayer, it seems to me, is that at least silent ones can be said anywhere, including in government facilities.)

When I was young, American Baptists opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it forced people, through taxes, to support religious practices, and no one should be forced—especially through government-imposed taxes–to support religion. Southern Baptists also opposed government aid to religious schools. Thus, in 1971, when a voucher system was proposed to allow public money to go to parochial schools, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that said, “We reaffirm our belief that the use of public funds for education in church-controlled schools, regardless of the manner in which these funds are channeled to church schools, is contrary to the principle of religious liberty.” The Convention went on to “reaffirm its commitment to our system of public education.”

          But times change, and, apparently, so do religious principles. That adamant opposition to state support for parochial schools has shifted. The Convention passed a resolution in 2014 entitled “On the Importance of Christ-Centered Education.” The SBC now encourages lawmakers to enact policies and laws that maximize “parental choice.” It goes on to say, “We affirm and encourage support for existing Christ-centered K-12 schools as they engage in Kingdom work.”

          What, you might ask, accounts for this 360-degree shift? Although religiously tolerant, Baptists were quite opposed to Roman Catholics, who were not seen as real followers of Christ. (A Sunday School teacher of mine once announced that the United States had three major religions: Christians, Jews, and Catholics.) A generation or two ago, the term “parochial schools” was often seen as a coded term for “Catholic schools,” even though other denominations also had religious schools. (The father and a nephew went to Lutheran schools.) The adamant opposition for aid to parochial schools that then existed might have sprung from opposition to Catholicism, but, in fact, the position was consistent with long-held Baptist views that go back to Roger Williams.

          So, what changed? A generation or two ago, Baptists had few K-12 schools. (A fair number of colleges and universities have Baptist roots, including, for example, Wake Forest and the University of Chicago.) However, then came the school desegregation movement. Even though the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in 1954, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that meaningful desegregation got underway. And, surprise, surprise, Christian Academies started springing up in places–coincidentally, I am sure—where opposition to desegregation was strongest. Non-Catholic Christian Schools doubled their enrollment between 1961 and 1971. And while there were few Baptist K-12 schools before Brown v. Board of Education, they became more numerous just at the time when public schools were being desegregated.

          Many of the Christian Academies were originally unabashedly segregated. We tend to forget all the preaching that said the separation of the races was commanded by the Bible, and Brown did not apply to private schools. These schools, however, could get back-door government help in the tax code. In the 1960s, donations to the schools were tax-exempt, but that changed through a series of Supreme Court decisions into the 1970s that declared racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for the tax break.

          After these legal decisions, most, if not all, of the schools no longer claimed to be all-white, but not many became truly integrated. The schools increasingly said they existed to fight secular humanism and to oppose liberalism. That message and the costs of the schools attracted few non-whites. The schools no longer touted segregation, but that remained the implicit draw of many of them.

          Funding of a Christian Academy education, however, is difficult for many who desire it no matter what their reasons. Therefore, many of those seeking a religious education today support school vouchers. These vouchers are public moneys given to the parents for the education of their schoolchildren. Thus, parents, not the state, decide which school will get the government money. Conservative economists promoted the vouchers in the 1950s as a way to improve education. The claim was that allowing free market principles, under the slogan “school choice,” would work wonders for educational quality, but the vouchers raise questions about the separation of church and state.

          Because the voucher can be used at any private school including parochial ones, public money is used for religious purposes. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear that governments could not directly aid religious schools, but vouchers, by giving parents control over the state money, is an indirect aid to religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in 2002 held that a school voucher did not violate the federal Constitution.

          In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention, espousing its traditional religious view, took a strong stand against vouchers as an improper state aid of religion. The Supreme Court, of course, cannot change the religious principles of Baptists, but since that strong stand against vouchers, many Baptist schools have been created, and, for whatever the reason, that adamant opposition by Southern Baptists has disappeared. Apparently, theological opposition to public moneys for religious schools dissolves when those schools might be Baptist institutions.

(concluded June 21)

The Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          Baptists practice adult baptism by immersion because of the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired, Baptists believe, and the ultimate authority for leading a Christian life. Baptists find no scriptural support for infant baptism. The baptisms mentioned in the Bible, for example, of Jesus by John the Baptist and one done by Phillip, were of adults, and there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist’s other baptisms were not of adults.

          Infant baptisms are a man-made ritual, according to Baptists, and it is not Christian to use man’s rituals over those of the Bible. And while it takes some extrapolation to conclude that immersion is required, the Bible says that Jesus and others came out of the water, and other passages do seem to support that the biblical baptism was by dunking, including the verse–I think it is in one of the Romans–that says baptism symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. Sprinkling or the thumb’s spreading of water on a forehead doesn’t really seem to be a good symbol of that.

          Baptists maintained that the only biblically-based rituals were adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  And on the first Sunday of every month we had communion. Little cubes of Wonder Bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice were passed around. (As frugal as the church and its congregants were, it might not have been Welch’s, but an off brand.) I did like communion, but it brought some of my first doubts. I was told to take the Bible literally, but our church also commanded teetotaling. When I asked about why no wine, I was told that when the Bible said “wine,” it meant grape juice. Hmmm, I thought to myself.

          Adult baptism and communion and the Bible. Any other ritual or source comes from man and not God. No genuflecting. No stations of the cross. No Book of Common Prayer. No required kneeling. No incense. No icons. No required head covering. No rosary. No “mandatory” church attendance. No prayers other than to the Trinity. No saints. (It still bothers me to hear “The Gospel According to St. Mark.” No, it is the Gospel according to Mark.)

          Baptists are not only separated from other denominations by the lack of much ritual but also by the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The only kind of churches Jesus and his apostles recognized were no larger than a congregation, and Baptists maintain that is what the Christian church should still be. Nothing is above an individual church. No one imposes a minister, priest, or vicar on a Baptist church; the congregation selects its leader. No bishops; no presbytery. Each congregation is supreme.

          American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.

          Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect and produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.

          Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to the rulers.

          This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is sheltered by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians, not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.

(continued June 26)