Walfred Peterson: Champion of Religious Liberty (G.W. Carlson) – part 2

Today G.W. Carlson concludes his tribute to Baptist scholar Wally Peterson, who helped found the political science program at Bethel during his time there (1950-1965). In part two G.W. turns to Peterson’s time with the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now, Religious Liberty) and his productive tenure on the faculty of Washington State University.

Walfred Peterson in 1965
Walfred Peterson in the May 1965 Clarion issue announcing his departure from Bethel – Bethel University Digital Library

As seen in an essay entitled, “After Eighteen Years,” Walfred Peterson was always interested in the development of a Christian liberal arts education as it emerged on various evangelical campuses. As he experienced it as both student and faculty member at Bethel University he was appreciative of Bethel’s commitment to our religious heritage and its belief in a broad-based understanding of student and faculty freedom. Peterson developed the following conclusions:

  1. The faculty has risen in quality with the strong ability to integrate faith and learning.
  2. Administration has been faithful in defending faculty against outside “restrictive pressures” by Bethel’s constituencies.
  3. Students are relatively free to “live and learn as they see fit.” He wrote that “this as it should be. Certainly, among Christians such freedom should be maximized. If Christ’s transforming power does not make this possible, then we lie about His power to transform.”
  4. All Christian colleges ought to be measured on the “breath of liberty.” Bethel “has been a kind of exception when compared to other evangelical schools. It has been willing to rely on the Spirit for the discipline which all Christians should have. It should maintain this position as a mission to Christian higher education.”

To the Baptist Joint Committee (1965-1968)

Members of the Baptist General Conference have long been major contributors to the Baptist Joint Committee. This relationship began in the late 1940s, then deepened when C. Emmanuel Carlson left his academic post as Dean of Bethel College (1939-1953) to serve as Executive Director of the BJC (1953-1971).

C. Emanuel Carlson
C. Emanuel Carlson – Trail Markers

Carlson was significant in encouraging Peterson to become the BJC’s Director of Research Services. Peterson was selected because “he is a man of genuine scholarship and competence. He is a man of broad Christian sympathies and general good will. He would add much to the effective work already done by the Baptist Joint Committee.” Specifically referenced was his work on the “School Bus Issue in Minnesota” for the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.

Peterson had an effective three years at the BJC. He accomplished several major functions: communicated the agenda of BJC to the constituency Baptist denominations; testified before Congress on major church-state issues; wrote short articles on major church-state questions; created documents encouraging Baptists to effectively communicate their concerns in various political arenas; and authored a number of major staff reports. Four major issues seem to dominate this period: diplomatic relations with the Vatican, economic revenue for non-public education, issues of religious and political freedoms in both the workplace and general public discourse, and the role of the federal government in protecting religious liberty abroad.

During this era Peterson was optimistic about the Supreme Court’s willingness to be a defender of religious liberty. He believed that in the 1960s the United States had a broader “freedom of religious expression than at any time in American history.” Having to choose between free religious expression and a community’s peace and quiet, the Court generally chose to give the “freedom of religion the highest value – even when it occasioned various community inconveniences.”

One of the most interesting questions that Peterson had to address was whether the United States should open diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Recognizing the growing ecumenical spirit of the 1960s and believing that churches should raise their public policy interests, the question of full-scale diplomatic recognition should be evaluated and analyzed. Could, for example, the Vatican be helpful in certain types of international issues? Peterson concluded that “since we are convinced that churches have alternative means of influencing international affairs, that the functions and powers of churches do not properly include normal diplomatic activity and that constitutionally the United States government cannot recognize a church as a religious agency, we are the more persuaded that American diplomatic recognition of the Vatican would be an error.” Obviously, this advice, for a variety of reasons was not heeded and the United States government has had full-scale diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Peterson also argued that people of the church needed to learn how to effectively talk with their elected officials. He argued that they have special reasons to interact with these officials. They are “especially concerned about both the moral aspects of community life” and the protection of their and the “church’s Christian witness in the community.” In a pamphlet entitled “A Churchman Talks with His Elected Officials,” Peterson outlines some of the core issues. The church’s contribution, he stated, was most needed and competence high in matters that affect religious liberty. The freedom “to witness, to organize, to teach the Christian life, etc., are freedoms Christians and churches should understand best, for these freedoms affect the foundations of the Christian movement. When these freedoms are at stake, no Christian dares to be unconcerned or timid in using his influence or marshalling his church action.”

Peterson at Washington State University at Pullman (1968-1992)

I started teaching political science and history courses at Bethel University in 1968. From time to time Peterson would visit Bethel. Occasionally his former students and faculty colleagues would communicate interactions and I would receive xeroxed hand written comments about the Supreme Court and major church/state issues.

Peterson was invited back to Bethel to speak at convocations largely on church-state issues and was named Bethel’s Alumnus of the Year in 1983.  One of his recommenders stated he has “stubbornly, consistently, and effectively championed the cause of religious liberty and human rights. As an undergraduate he, more than any other person, challenged me to think carefully, critically, and continually about human rights, government and soul liberty.”

Peterson, Thy Liberty in LawMeanwhile, Peterson had joined the faculty of Washington State University. During his time at WSU, Peterson wrote his most significant monograph, Thy Liberty in Law (1978). It is an excellent study of religious liberty and church-state issues from an ideological framework along with an analysis of the most significant cases in the 1960s and 1970s. Of most importance are Peterson’s contributions to the analysis of the interpretation of the “establishment clause.” Starting with the Lemon Test (the law or government action must have a secular intent, must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and must not excessively entangle religion and government) Peterson explored how it had been both modified and challenged by more recent court decisions.

Peterson helped readers to understand the complexity with which the establishment clause is applied and clearly sides with those who are significantly concerned with excessive government entanglement and efforts to promote the legitimacy of one religion over another. The vibrancy of faith is best enhanced when there is little state engagement. The state will never assist a religious community without a demand for “loyalty” or other concessions by the faith community.

John Anderson, one of Peterson’s students at Bethel, had a conversation with him after his retirement. In an interview Peterson expressed some concern about the rise of the religious right, especially within the Baptist community, and its denial of the major principles of the religious liberty and church state separation. The religious right tends now to move toward an effort to create a new American civil religion that advocates for the return of a “Christian America.” Peterson is quoted (in the July 2005 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion) as having said:

The “civil religion” of this land and its people is presently both very strong and is still growing stronger. By “civil religion” is meant much of the public’s religious-like devotion to the nation state and its enterprises. This strength comes from the people themselves and from political leaders who exploit the public’s devotion for their own political aims. Keeping this definition in mind, add to it the fact that some religious groups are better funded and purposefully organized to promote political ends than in earlier days. Some mega churches have the potential to raise large budgets and to organize followers that impact political issues as never before. True, some other church groups in the prohibition and civil rights eras have shown similar capacities, but never like the religious right wing activists today.

The song “Onward Christian Soldiers” may be disappearing from hymnals of mainline denominations but not from those of right wing churches. This combination of “civil religion” and the capacity for church political action presents the nation with a new and different scene in religious politics than it has experienced before.

For Peterson this new right movement clearly wished to sacrifice the traditional Baptist vision, as seen by their efforts to delegitimize the Baptist Joint Committee and form alternative lobbying institutions.

The Baptist Commitment to Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State   

Drawing of Walfred Peterson
Drawing of Wally Peterson – Trail Markers

Walfred Peterson carried out Edwin Gaustad’s plea that Baptists always advocate for the First Amendment. He always reminded the Bethel community that our commitment to “religious liberty” was to be taken very seriously. In his essays he asserted four major claims that remain relevant for today:

  1. The Baptist support of the First Amendment did not automatically mean that religious liberty was found in all of the states. It took a long time for state laws to reflect a commitment to religious liberty and the disestablishment of a state church. It was often a bitter and contentious process.
  2. It was not until 1947 that the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment meant that the religion clauses of the First Amendment would also apply to the states.
  3. Baptists support the general principle of the separation of church and state to best implement the principles of religious liberty. Peterson wrote that “religious freedom was and is the highest end respecting relations with the state. A clean separation of church and state is necessary as a means to that end for many purposes. But a wise cooperation of church and state is also necessary to that end.” This could include areas such military, hospital, and prison chaplaincies.
  4. Many Baptists have been co-opted by two dangerous ideas: that we are essentially a Christian nation and that it is the responsibility of the state to help promote important Christian beliefs and practices. Baptists have generally advanced the argument that although Christianity has played a role in influencing our public life and culture, the constitution is essentially secular and advances the principle of voluntary religious commitments and religious pluralism.

Peterson concluded one analysis by suggesting that it “took a John Adams, a Thomas Paine and a Thomas Jefferson in the 1770s to rivet the people’s attention on the cause of freedom and independence. And in an age when Baptists are ever more subject to institutional guidance, it will take articulate and persuasive denominational leaders to raise the people’s consciousness of freedom’s concerns.” Baptists of the 21st century must take up that mantle. Don’t sacrifice it to a desire to impose religious authoritarianism, create a theocratic vision of civil religion, or allow “secularity” to inhibit the free expression of a person’s religious conviction.

<<Read the first part of this post


One thought on “Walfred Peterson: Champion of Religious Liberty (G.W. Carlson) – part 2

  1. Good essay. Yes, fall semester 1960 was tense on campus. In addition, prof. Bass’s critical analysis of dispensationalism added to the controversy around then. I recall sitting in on coffee shop discussions between dr Peterson and basketball coach jerry Healy about the fortunes of bethel basketball.

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