Virginia Baptists Approve Resolution Reaffirming Church-State Separation

The Baptist General Association of Virginia voted in November to approve a resolution supporting church-state separation and deploring attempts to portray it as non-historical.

The resolution states that “the Baptist principles of religious liberty and its safeguard, separation of church and state (or government neutrality toward all religions and nonreligion), are well grounded in this nation’s history.”

It calls on Virginia Baptists to “regard it as a threat to the flourishing of religious liberty when any version of our nation’s history minimizes or denies the historical basis” of church-state separation. It also says Virginia Baptists should “be diligent in resisting and correcting any such mistaken version of our history.”

The Associated Baptist Press (ABP) reported that congregational representatives at the event – called “messengers” in Baptist parlance – approved the measure “by a wide margin on a show-of-hands vote.”

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 ABP.

A few messengers spoke against the resolution. Pastor Joseph Giles of James Square Baptist Church in Lawrenceville defended the Texas State Board of Education, calling them “reclaimers of our heritage.”

In most parts of the country, state affiliates of the Southern Baptist Convention are controlled by fundamentalists who parrot Religious Right-style “Christian nation” views. But the Virginia convention remains in the hands of moderates.

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….”

Virginia played a key role in the development of church-state separation. The state is the home of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, legislation drafted by Thomas Jefferson and championed by James Madison that many scholars consider a precursor to the First Amendment.