Religious Freedom: The Contested Core of Baptist Identity

Kidd & Hankins, Baptists in AmericaIn the wake of the recent Southern Baptist debate about religious freedom for Muslims — and given the larger conversation about the meaning of religious freedom in an increasingly post-Christian society — I thought I’d use this week’s Anxious Bench post to revisit something I wrote about last year: how Baptists responded to the 1960s Supreme Court rulings against school prayer.

While Baptist historians like Tommy Kidd and Barry Hankins (Baptists in America) understandably focus most of their attention on the SBC and other large denominations, I argue that the Baptist denomination I work for (indirectly) “has wielded influence out of proportion to its numbers.” For example, half a century ago, Southern Baptist supporters of a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools were staunchly opposed by C. Emanuel Carlson, a Swedish Baptist and former dean of Bethel College (Minn.) who became the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. I argued that Carlson’s framed his opposition to state-sanctioned prayer in Baptist terms: as a commitment to soul freedom and nonconformity.

In addition to updating some of the research and writing from last summer, I added one notable wrinkle to this version of the post:

Young, We Gather TogetherIn his recent review of Neil Young’s We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, John Wilsey reminded us that “Protestants in the 1950s thought of religious liberty as a hedge protecting them against Roman Catholic supremacy in the United States.” That theme had come out in our Bethel at War research, so I wondered if it was in background of the school prayer debate. Sure enough, while the Baptist General Conference strongly affirmed separation of church and state and religious freedom in 1962 — the year of the Supreme Court’s landmark Engel case — it did so in part because “Roman Catholic leaders have launched an aggressive campaign to use Federal funds for church-operated schools.”

None of which causes me to question Carlson’s commitment to religious freedom, or Russell Moore’s admirable defense of that principle for non-Christians. But I think that John (following Young) is right to emphasize that “religious liberty has undergone more than one articulation in American history. And as significant as religious liberty is, it will likely continue to evolve over time.”

Read my full Anxious Bench version of the post on the school prayer debate here.

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