Walfred Peterson: Champion of Religious Liberty (G.W. Carlson) – part 1

Walfred H. Peterson
Walfred H. Peterson (1924-2013)

Having previously written tributes to Clarence Jordan, Virgil Olson, and Will D. Campbell, our own favorite Baptist, G.W. Carlson, returns to celebrate another noteworthy Baptist: political scientist Walfred “Wally” Peterson, who served at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in between teaching stints at Bethel College and Washington State University. (G.W. previously wrote about Peterson and religious liberty in the July 2005 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion.)

In part one of this post, G.W. introduces “Wally Pete,” following his life and career up through his support of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to participate in a wonderful celebration of Baptist history in Charleston, South Carolina. One of my memories of that event was an address by the distinguished American Baptist historian Edwin Gaustad. He walked slowly up the circular stairs leading to the pulpit and delivered an address entitled “Baptists and the First Amendment: Celebrating Commitments to Religious Liberty.” After documenting the coalition of radical pietists (i.e. Baptists), and Enlightenment-influenced political activists (i.e., Jefferson and Madison) that developed the First Amendment, he concluded, with tears in his eyes:

So there you have it, my fellow lovely radicals. Radical pietism together with radical rationalism has given us a magnificent heritage of a full freedom in religion. Do not spurn or abandon this noble heritage. Embrace it – with your whole heart.

Some have said that this was one of Gaustad’s last major public presentations. He died in 2011.

One of the most eloquent Baptists to join Gaustad in embracing the First Amendment was Walfred “Wally” Peterson. His whole life was devoted to protecting religious liberty while he was professor of political science at Bethel College (1950-1965), director of research services at the Baptist Joint Committee (1965-1968), and professor of political science at Washington State University (1968-1992). Peterson died in Pullman, Washington last August.

Peterson, Thy Liberty in Law

His most famous book was Thy Liberty in Law (1978), which analyzes how the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment. For Baptists one of the basic underpinnings of religious liberty is the belief in the dignity of each person and the commitment to an understanding of religion as a voluntary response to God’s love. Peterson writes:

Each saint or sinner is a sacred entity, enormously valuable in God’s sight. The value is reflected in the biblical thrust, repeated from Genesis to Revelation, that each has the power of choice. Each can voluntarily respond to God’s love and call. Even at the level of rejecting God’s purposes, each person may choose for or against his own good. None is to be or can be tricked or bribed or compelled into choosing the good. People simply are not wired that way. Such a determinist wiring does not harmonize with the nature of God or man. Thus: coercion respecting belief is improper. (p. 31)

From Moline to Bethel

Walfred Peterson was born in Moline, Illinois in 1924. He was a member of a Swedish immigrant family that was greatly influenced by the Great Depression and World War II.  He lost his left arm to gangrene when he was a child. It kept him out of the army during World War II, a reality that he significantly regretted. However, it did not keep him from being an excellent athlete.

Arriving at Bethel (still a junior college) in 1944, Peterson was an extremely engaged student, regularly making the honor roll. He was the leading scorer on Bethel’s basketball team and an excellent ping-pong player. Peterson was feature editor of the Clarion, where one of his most interesting and eloquent essays reflected his respect for those who served in the United States military in World War II. The G.I. Bill was passed in 1944, and Bethel, like many colleges at this time, was a recipient of returning veterans wishing to go to college. Peterson’s essay “Burlington Arriving” (from the January 19, 1944 issue) reflected on his experiences at the St. Paul railroad station:

All were there. Richman, poorman, beggarman, thief. All from different walks of life, all with a different background. All distinct individuals, and yet they were there for one reason – the soldier was coming home.

Fathers sat in the waiting room eyeing the clock, occasionally walking to and fro. Mothers sat with a tense look which revealed that a son was a few minutes away. Sweethearts and young brides walked nervously in an aimless direction making an irritating sound with their high heels. Younger brothers and sisters waited in an acme of excitement.

The droll voice announced thru the loud system, “Burlington from Chicago now arriving on track four.” The persons arose as one and began threading their way toward the entrance. Each moment heightened the suspense.

“There he is! There he is! A young girl screamed as she ran to the open arms of a soldier.

“Bob, Bob, here we are.”

Hugs, kisses, handshakes, tears are all mingled, the crowd at the train door begins to filter away talking happily.

Talking happily – talking of home, experiences, weddings. All sorrow of war forgotten for one sweet hour. A moment that words cannot begin to describe. All are happy now.

All – all but the others at track eight. The train is ready. Brides and sweethearts reach for the last kiss. Mothers cry and bid farewell. Fathers choke back tears, but it takes a supreme effort. Soldiers hid heart breaking emotion.

Ten days more those that arrived change roles with the departing. Ten days more different soldiers arrive. Ten days more glad hearts are sad, and sad hearts are gladdened by new arrivals.

How strange that the voice that says, “Train arriving,” or “Train departing,”  can cause so much emotion. Just one voice. I would not like to be that voice.

Walfred Peterson (with history professor Dalphy Fagerstrom) on completing his doctorate in December 1957
Peterson in December 1957, being congratulated by history professor Dalphy Fagerstrom for having completed his doctorate – Bethel University Digital Library

Peterson completed his B.A. at the University of Minnesota (magna cum laude) in 1947. He went on to earn his M.A. (1949) and PhD (1957) from the same institution. Peterson’s interest in athletics, especially basketball, caused a Clarion writer to speculate that “Mrs. Peterson hides the sports section of the daily paper” while he was working on his doctorate at the U and engaged in full-time teaching (starting in 1950) and being a dorm parent back at Bethel.

He seemed to be well liked as a dorm parent. In the Clarion an editorial writer stated: “It is unheard of for anyone in the dormitory to remain angry with Mr. Peterson for longer than about five minutes, even when the punishment is forced labor (waxing floors, etc.). He has not allowed any unruly action and he has not been overly severe. Mr. Peterson’s sense of humor, good common sense, and obvious ability will be used solely in the classroom…”

During Peterson’s era at Bethel, in 1956, a political science major became a reality under the rubric of the history and political science department. The Clarion also announced that the culminating experience for majors in that department was an individually given oral comprehensive with all of the faculty. The goal was to “assess the nature of the educational experiences of the students and determine the strengths and weaknesses of the program now being offered by the department.” No grade or evaluation was given although “the results can have some effect on recommendations for graduate school.”

Peterson and Civil Discourse

Although Walfred Peterson was the adviser to the Young Democrats on campus, his major area of concern was to provoke political discussions across party lines and encourage students to get involved. He moderated many debates between political candidates (e.g., Democratic representative Eugene McCarthy  vs. Republican challenger Edward Slettedahl), explored diverse viewpoints in articles on major issues of American foreign policy like the rise of China and the crises of the Cold War, brought significant scholars to campus (e.g., Harold Deutsch, to speak on the Berlin Crisis), and hosted afternoon discussions on such issues as the Civil Rights Bill in the spring of 1964. He was also the faculty advisor of the student council.

Clarion photo of Eugene McCarthy with Wally Peterson and McCarthy's 1956 challenger, Edward Slettedahl
Rep. Eugene McCarthy, Wally Peterson, and Edward Slettedahl in October 1956 – Bethel University Digital Library

One of the most cherished aspects of Peterson’s experience at Bethel was his giftedness as a teacher and his ability to cultivate the intellectual and spiritual development of his students.  He was always challenging but kind in the classroom. As a contentious politically conservative sophomore I had the opportunity to have an International Relations class from him at 8am. In a discussion after class I posed an objection to the removal of prayer from the public school and asked why, as a Christian, he would be willing to engage that issue as a religious liberty and church-state issue.

The case under discussion was Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case that concerned the State of New York Board of Regents’ written prayer that was to be used in the public schools: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.” In a 6-1 ruling the Supreme Court ruled the prayer unconstitutional based on the establishment clause, holding that it is not the function of government to compose official prayers. School prayers were religious activities and government should not be used for promoting religious activities.

Peterson could have given me a judgmental lecture on constitutional issues, questioned the “ideological” contentiousness of my presentation, or simply decided to brush me off. He did none of those things. He quietly asked me a question about the sacredness of prayer. He quietly asked me, “Tell me a prayer that everyone can pray (i.e. a state written prayer), to a God that everyone can pray to, led by anybody, and tell me that’s a prayer.” Prayer, he suggested, was too sacred. It was between yourself and God. For the Christian, it was based on a relationship built on the reality of conversion. Thinking about it that way encouraged me to explore the other religious liberty issues.

Peterson Endorses John Kennedy for President

Many evangelicals were vehemently opposed to the election of a Catholic as President. I can remember anti-Kennedy tracts in the back of my church which we were to pass out to our Protestant friends. After John F. Kennedy won the West Virginia primary, major Protestant figures such as W. A. Criswell, Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Norman Vincent Peale got together because they believed that a Roman Catholic president would face “extreme pressure from the hierarchy of the church” to advance the interests of the church.

Kennedy responded with his famous Houston, Texas speech, declaring that “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.” Kennedy stated that he believed in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. He concluded that a president needed to be one “whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed on him by the nation or imposed upon him as a condition to holding that office.” For many Protestants this was sufficient. However, the evangelical coalition still remained skeptical. (For further discussion see Randall Balmer’s God in the White House.)

When Peterson endorsed Kennedy he found himself having to defend that position on Bethel’s campus and within the Baptist General Conference (BGC). In a March 1960 article in the Clarion Peterson wrote that he supported Kennedy because of his political perspectives on issues such as foreign policy and civil rights; most Catholics had made their peace with the realities of American democratic pluralism and the constitution suggests that there should be no religious tests for public office. For those who still feared the election of a Catholic president there was also the checks and balances found within the American constitution.

Billy Graham, 1966
Library of Congress

However, Peterson needed to address not only the “friendly” arena of the college campus but the significant criticism that was coming from BGC constituents. In the Columbia Baptist Conference (CBC) Peterson was invited out to a retreat where he was forced to address the pastor’s inquiries on his support for a Catholic candidate for President.  Not satisfied with his answers a number of CBC pastors signed a letter to Bethel president Carl Lundquist requesting Peterson’s termination as professor at Bethel. President Lundquist supported Peterson. (After Kennedy’s tragic assassination Lundquist spoke of admiring Kennedy because he “brought into the White house many of the basic concerns of higher education; the integration of intellectual theory and practical politics; the humanitarian drive to attempt need social reform; and the cultivation of the fine arts for the enrichment of total life.”)

After Kennedy was elected Billy Graham called on the new President prior to the inauguration. I believe, stated Graham, that Kennedy “will become the most prayed for man in the world.” The evangelist and Peterson suggested that Kennedy’s election lessened the issue of “religious prejudice” in American politics. It is interesting that in the most recent election, Rick Santorum, also a Roman Catholic, rejected the Kennedy Houston statement and argued that we are a Christian nation which needed to advance our Christian values in public institutions. Many evangelicals have now changed their minds and significantly support Santorum’s position.

Empathy for the Working Class

As a young person growing up in New Jersey, the trek across the various turnpikes to Chicago to visit my grandparents was a real treat. Both grandparents were immigrants from Sweden and part of the working class families of Chicago. They spoke broken English, enjoyed their Swedish heritage, and worshiped in a Swedish Baptist church. However, one of my most significant memories was going into the living room and seeing two items on the coffee table: a Bible and the union paper. Grandpa Carlson was a blacksmith and thankful to a government that sought to ease the travails of the laboring classes during the Great Depression.

It is clear from Walfred Peterson’s writings that he appreciated the role of the union movement in assisting the American capitalist system to distribute power and benefits more fairly. Union reforms have helped to bring about the five-day work week, paid vacations, access to health care, a minimum wage, and improved working environments. Peterson raised three arguments: 1. In a democratic society the development of unions is necessary and desirable. If men and women are equal in the political realm, they must and will press for certain types of equality in the economic realm, at least equality of bargaining power; 2. Unions allow workers’ political interests to more effectively enter the national debate; and 3. a capitalist society needs an effective union movement to balance off the interests of the corporate elite during economic decision-making.

This does not mean that unions are not without their problems: misuse of power, corruption, and unwise leadership. However, a corporate economic elite cannot be the sole determiner of the common interests of our community. The Christian cannot ignore supporting the working classes and the new immigrant communities. It is important that the Christian message is “relevant to the everyday problems of millions of people and their leaders who through their joint efforts help shape American culture.”

This post continues tomorrow with Peterson’s departure from Bethel and time at the Baptist Joint Committee…


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