Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          For Williams, the progenitor of American Baptists, religion was a personal thing. A person’s conscience is God’s line of communication to the individual. Humans being imperfect might be wrong about what conscience demands, but since the conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.

          In other words, all must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship or support religious practices against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.

          A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Thus, Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.

          These views led not just to liberty of conscience and toleration on religious matters, but on all subjects. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and that all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.

          (I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.)

These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision.

When I attended the Baptist church, the 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. On occasion, however, I recognized a bit of Baptist backsliding. I was home from college or law school during the Vietnam War and went to church. The minister’s sermon gave support for that war. I was offended for two reasons: (1) He was wrong about the war. (2) He was wrong as a Baptist. The church should not give or withold support for the government. It cheapened the worship of God to bring the state into it. Church and state. Separate.

I voiced my displeasure to the minister after the service, and he invited me to visit him during the week, which I did. We discussed the war. I knew that as Baptists he could not speak to me from a position of authority where he could attempt to dictate what my views should be. He, using either reason or the Bible or both, had to persuade me that his sermon was correct. He did not.

This interjection of politics into church was rare, however. Church and state were kept separate, and 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. 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.

(continued June 29)