Baptist Bulwark: Virginia ‘Messengers’ Reaffirm Church-State Separation

Virginia Baptists have a special reason to be concerned about separation of church and state.

When I read about some of things the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has done over the years – calling for boycotts of Disney parks and products, passing resolutions telling wives to be submissive to husbands, bashing gay people, etc. – I must remind myself that there are still plenty of good people who bear the Baptist name.

Some of them work with at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty here in Washington. A host of others are across the Potomac River in Virginia.

Fundamentalists have seized control of the national SBC organizational structure and its affiliates in many states. But they’ve never managed to capture Virginia. Baptist moderates run the show there, and earlier this week, the Baptist General Association of Virginia met to take care of its business, including electing a new president.

Congregational representatives at the event – called “messengers” in Baptist parlance – also passed an interesting resolution condemning revisionist history and deploring recent attacks on separation of church and state.

Virginia Baptists have a special reason to be concerned about this. The state was the home of leaders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason. Baptist preacher John Leland, a fiery church-state separation advocate, also lived there for several years. It’s the state that gave us the pioneering Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as such it can rightly claim to be the cradle of religious liberty.

Right-thinking Baptists in the Old Dominion aren’t about to let anyone mess with that proud legacy.

Rob James, chair of the Association’s Religious Liberty Committee, said the resolution was in part a reaction to recent events in Texas, where Religious Right activists hostile to church-state separation rewrote state social studies standards to promote bogus “Christian nation” concepts.

“One of the things that frightened us was that the next 10 years of social studies textbooks would raise questions about the founding of this country and to what extent, if at all, the idea of separation of church and state is part of our national commitment,” James told Associated Baptist Press.

There was some criticism of the resolution. A few messengers raised common Religious Right objections and criticized church-state separation, but they failed to sway many. It was reported that the measure passed “by a wide margin on a show-of-hands vote.”

The resolution comes on the heels of a decision by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board to publish a booklet correcting “certain influential versions of American history [which] ... mistakenly minimize or deny the grounding in this nation’s history of the Baptist principles of religious liberty or its safeguard, the Baptist principle of church-state separation....”

Americans United counts on the help of people of many different faiths (as well as those with no faith) to defend church-state separation. Virginia Baptists have once again proven themselves to be a crucial element of that diverse coalition.

More power to their pens, voices, minds and spirits.