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)