They Can’t Have It Back: Southern Baptist Leader Seeks To ‘Reclaim’ Church-State Separation

In virtually every modern church-state case heard by the Supreme Court, the SBC has been on the side of more church-state union, not separation. Under fundamentalist control, the denomination embraced a fatal mistake: believing that Caesar could enforce the “moral” society that the preaching of its pastors had failed to deliver. Persuasion was replaced with the raw power of the state.

If there were a prize for unmitigated gall, it would be awarded today to Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Moore, speaking during a recent panel discussion at the Evangelical Leadership Summit, an event sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., told the crowd that they need to “reclaim” the phrase separation of church and state, a term he admitted that “we long ago tossed overboard.”

Baptist Press reported that Moore said that the term “does not mean secularization….It means that the state is limited and does not have lordship over the conscience….”

That sounds nice – until you remember that this is coming from a man whose denomination has spent the past 35 years or so doing everything in its power to undermine what Thomas Jefferson called “the wall of separation between church and state.”

It’s true that Baptists were once great champions of church-state separation. Some still are today, but the SBC long ago stopped being for the separation principle. After fundamentalists took over the denomination, it quickly became an appendage of the most reactionary wing of the Republican Party. Eroding Jefferson’s wall was job one.  

In short order, the SBC went from celebrating the legacy of men like Roger Williams, John Leland and Isaac Backus to rallying around figures like W.A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas who once famously remarked, “I believe this notion of separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination.”

Baptist leaders who stood for tolerance and the right of conscience gave way to men like Bailey Smith, the president of the SBC in 1980 who uttered this comment: “It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true messiah? It is blasphemy. It may be politically expedient, but no one can pray unless he prays through the name of Jesus Christ.”

Real, authentic Baptist historians were pushed aside for the likes of “Christian nation” advocate David Barton, a former Christian school teacher (not a historian) who calls separation of church and state a “myth.”

A denomination that had once proudly carried the banner for freedom of conscience was now demanding school prayer amendments, pressing for tax support of sectarian schools, bashing LGBT rights, advocating creationism in public schools, demanding that wives submit to their husbands and, most recently, insisting that its theological view of marriage be the law of the land for all.

In the mid-1990s, when the far right cooked up a monstrosity called the “religious freedom amendment” that would have removed church-state separation from the U.S. Constitution, SBC leaders didn’t protest this scheme to alter the First Amendment. Instead, they recommended some changes and then signed on. They were happy to replace the genius of James Madison with a farrago patched together by a band of lawyers for Religious Right groups and see it promoted by former U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, an obscure congressman from Oklahoma fronting for Newt Gingrich.

In virtually every modern church-state case heard by the Supreme Court, the SBC has been on the side of more church-state union, not separation. Under fundamentalist control, the denomination embraced a fatal mistake: believing that Caesar could enforce the “moral” society that the preaching of its pastors had failed to deliver. Persuasion was replaced with the raw power of the state.

So yes, the Baptists did toss the concept of church-state separation overboard. And that’s why a broad coalition of liberal and moderate Protestants, progressive Catholics, humanists, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, Pagans, etc., rescued it. We nurtured it. We breathed new life into it. We defended it from attacks. We stood up for it. We reminded all Americans of how important it is.

Perhaps most importantly, we debunked the lies of the “Christian nation” crowd. One of those myths is still spread by Moore: that secularism is the great enemy of faith. Far from it. An officially secular state is religion’s best friend. A secular state is not hostile to religion. It merely says that it’s not the job of any branch of government to favor religion or to have an opinion on theological matters. It leaves that discussion to private arenas.

Under our secular Constitution and our secular state, thousands of religions and philosophies have bloomed. It is hard to argue with that success, but there have always been those among us who are angry and bitter because the government dares to equate “false” religions with their “true” one.

Secular government and the separation of church and state are not enemies; they’re partners. Moore fails to understand this. And it is why he’ll never succeed in reclaiming the separation of church and state.

You see, Moore does not really want to reclaim the separation principle. He wants to redefine it. He wants to twist it and warp it and make it the servant of his theology, a prop for his vision of a godly society.

But it’s too late for that. The SBC has abandoned, neglected and abused the separation of church and state for too long. They can’t have it back because they’ll do that again.

Rest assured, Mr. Moore, that those of us who value this vital principle of American life aren’t about to let that happen. (Today is Constitution Day – the perfect time to send that message.)

And if you choose to come for it anyway, you’ll find you have quite a fight on your hands.

P.S. Remember, the SBC does not represent all Baptists. Some still hold to the traditional view of support for church-state separation. Visit some of them here.