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)

Questions for the Fourth of July, or Any Day

The summer community’s Fourth of July traditions have included an ahistorical “Paul Revere” ride through the streets at daybreak; fireworks one night, a communal picnic another; and a small parade that leads to the swimming pool where people plop and populate the hills for a ceremony that has included the singing of songs; children reciting the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; the release of thirteen doves (pigeons?); an address from a community resident. All attendees pin on a badge with the year that person first came to the community. During the ceremony attendees are asked to indicate whether they have an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and a surprising number of people stand.

In anticipation of the Fourth, a community group prepared a questionnaire expecting that the tabulated results would be presented at the July celebration. It asked not only the ancestor-signing and when-did-you-come-here questions but also whether residents had met their significant others in the community; whether respondents had gone to the summer camp held annually here; and other questions of a similar sort. Since the community was founded by Philadelphia Quakers, residents were asked whether they or their ancestors were Friends. And a question asked whether community members had ancestors on the Mayflower. Although the questionnaire was written in January, it only went out last week. Many residents have responded without comment, but a few people objected that in this time of Covid-19, peaceful protests, and riots, the survey was tone deaf by focusing on a white American heritage.

I was surprised, and a bit pleased, that some questioned the questionnaire. The community prides itself as an oasis of tranquility and civility, which is frequently remarked upon. Less often do we reflect on the fact that we come from a privileged, narrow slice of society. Primarily this a community of second homes, and second homes signify affluence. Wealth is seldom overtly flaunted here, but there are no working class people. We have heads of companies, but no one who works on the factory floor. Dues are high and property prices are higher than in the surrounding area. You need more money than most people have in this country to live here.

And the community is overwhelmingly white. In my three decades here, there have always been a smattering of Asians, but the black and brown residents have never comprised more than the fingers on one hand.

I do believe that the Fourth of July should be a day to celebrate our independence, but it should be more. We should recognize that the Founders, like all humans, were flawed, and we should go beyond just a consideration of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. The day should also commemorate America, American history, and all Americans. It is a time for patriotism, but we should stress that the true patriot wants not only to protect the country but to make it better. And we should recognize that throughout our history, from colonial times until today, this country has struggled with race and class issues that have not been resolved. We are not a perfect union, and all patriotic Americans should think about how to make it better.

          Such ruminations got me thinking about questions I might like to ask of my fellow residents of this privileged, white summer community, questions that I, too, should ask of myself. For example:

Have you ever eaten dinner in the home of someone who was non-white? How often have you entertained a non-white in your home? How often have you entertained more than one non-white person or couple at the same time? What percentage of your neighbors at your primary residence would you estimate are non-white? Have you ever looked for a place to live in a neighborhood where the majority were non-whites?

How many of your neighbors are not in the top echelons of wealth? How much income do you think that it takes to lead a middle class life?

Have any of your bosses been non-white? What percentage of your co-workers at roughly your level are non-white?

Did any of your ancestors hold the opinion that Italians or Jews were not white? Were any of your ancestors concerned about the “Yellow Peril”? Did any of your ancestors oppose independence? Did your ancestors own slaves? Did any of your ancestors support abolition? Did any of your ancestors, or you, support or oppose any the civil rights movements throughout our history? Did your ancestors in this country face discrimination or racial, ethnic, or gender slurs? Have you faced discrimination or racial, ethnic, or gender slurs?

Are people less American if their ancestors were not here in 1776? Have you had a DNA test to find out more about your ancestry? Why? What reactions did you have to the results?

Have you ever taken part in a protest rally? How often and what for? How often have you been arrested? How often have you had in an encounter with the police where you felt afraid? How often have the police injured you? Have you ever been stopped and frisked? Have you ever been tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed? Have you ever been followed around in a store by security personnel?

What was your reaction when the Black Lives Matter movement emerged? Did you object when Colin Kaepernick and other athletes “took a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem?

Do you have ideas about how to bring more non-whites into this community? How do you think your neighbors would react if there were more non-whites here?

Do or did your children go to public schools, religious schools, or private schools? How many of their classmates are non-white? How many are in the lower half of income. What kind of schools did you go to?

Do you have any relatives in law enforcement? How would you feel if a child of yours said they wanted to be a police officer?

And a question that I feel I should regularly confront: In what ways would you say you are most hypocritical about race, class, and law enforcement issues?