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Church and State - the Baptists

David Derek, editor of the Jurnal of Church and State, says: "How does one possibly refuse an invitation for Ronald Hilton to comment? So, here goes. Like Paul Simon and Ron Hilton, I have both criticism and praise for the Baptists. The common perception of Baptists is that they are all fundamentalists, inerrantists, and rabid evangelists. But many Baptists do not wear this strait jacket; there are many moderate and liberal Baptists who are repulsed by the fundamentalists. They are part of a growing movement in American Baptist life that will eventually result in a complete split from the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. Part of the motivation for this split is the Southern Baptists' departure from historic Baptist views on the separation of church and state being the best guarantor of religious liberty for all Americans.

Indeed the past two decades have witnessed Southern Baptists increasingly on the side of more government support for religious activity, including school prayer, voucher support for private religious schools, and support of the Bush charitable choice initiative. These more conservative Baptists believe that the separation doctrine has been taken to extremes, and America consequently is suffering from an excessive secularism. The Southern Baptists even withdrew their support of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs about 10 years ago, and created their own public advocacy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptist Joint Committee (BJC), which is alive and well and for whom I have great affection, would be those who, as Simon reminded us, "would not touch government money with a ten-foot pole." From my vantage point, the BJC is much closer to the historic Baptist position on church-state issues.

Like the BJC, I fear that we are witnessing in our day a wrong-headed, near-nationwide belief that church-state separation is bad for religion and bad for America. The perception that we are a society in moral decline and that church-state separation, which deprives the nation's youth of needed moral training, is responsible for this state of affairs, is pervasive. My own view is that religion at the center is largely responsible for the success of the American experiment, and it has been church-state separation, mandating church autonomy and freedom from government interference, that deserves much of the credit for the healthy American religiosity. While we Texans usually are reticent to criticize one another, I must say that Bush's faith-based initiative does not adequately respect church-separation. Government funding of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other faith-based institutions, even to administer so-called "secular" programs (how can anyone call a faith-based program "secular"?), will, in my view, damage the dynamism of American religion. Americans support their religious institutions because government does not do it for them. Once the American public gets accustomed to massive (Bush wants to spend $8-10 billion annually on this) government support of religious activity, they will quit giving as much, thus fueling the need for more government infusions of money. Government financial support of American religion will justifiably (accountability is essential) lead to monitoring and control of religious institutions, and religion will begin losing its dynamic quality that has been so valuable in making American what is is. In time, religion will become just another government program, and we will find ourselves in religious decline ala Europe, never a friend of church-state separation, since the superstructure that ensures vitality of faith and practice will have been removed. Just one man's opinion, of course. But I am confident, nevertheless, that the "noble" Madison (no doubt the noblest of American presidents) would agree!"

My comment: I refuse to be baited by the Madison claque. WAIS is interested in the international aspect of things. The Baptists developed from the Puritans who, when the fled to Holland, came in contact with Anabaptists. The first Baptist congregation in England was formed in 1611, and in 1639 Roger Williams formed the first American congregation in Providence, RI. So much for the international origins. How widely has the Baptist Church spread from England and/or the US? It is said to have 30 million members worldwide. Has it proselytized actively abroad' Where? What reception has it received? I recall that it had difficulties in the Soviet Union.

Ronald Hilton - 1/25/02