When I attended the Baptist church, the views of separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, equality, and religious toleration espoused by Roger Williams were strong. Tolerant Baptists may not have been publicly militant about much, but they were militant about the separation of church and state. On occasion, however, I recognized a bit of Baptist backsliding. I was home from college or law school during the Vietnam War and went to church. The minister’s sermon gave support for that war. I was offended for two reasons: (1) He was wrong about the war. (2) He was wrong as a Baptist. The church should not give or wiithhold support for the government. It cheapened the worship of God to bring the state into it. Church and state. Separate.
I voiced my displeasure to the minister after the service, and he invited me to visit him during the week, which I did. We discussed the war. I knew that as Baptists he could not speak to me from a position of authority where he could attempt to dictate what my views should be. He, using either reason or the Bible or both, had to persuade me that his sermon was correct. He did not do so.
This interjection of politics into church was rare, however. Church and state were kept separate, and it was easy to predict how American Baptists would react in those days to some prominent church-state issues: prayers in public schools and government aid to parochial schools. For American Baptists the answers were a simple no and no.
The public prayers profaned God. If one prayed because the state required it, then the prayer came not out of devotion to God, but because of devotion or fear of the state. This made such a prayer unholy and defiled true religion. If the prayer was uttered, not out of devotion and faith, but merely out of a habit, like saying “Good morning, Miss Ketter” to the teacher each morning, the prayer was still sinful.
We American Baptists thought that the United States Supreme Court got it right when it held in 1962 that a recitation of a state-written prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment, which prohibits an establishment of religion. Furor around the country, however, resulted. Godlessness would prevail. Communists would ascend. I found this panic amusing. My public school did not have prayers. I believe they were outlawed in Wisconsin, as they were in many–perhaps most–other states. I listened to the rants about the Court’s decision, and looked about me and could not figure out what they were going on about. Wisconsin, to my keen eye that was on a vigilant lookout for such things and disappointed when I could not find them, did not seem to be more a hotbed of iniquity than places that required the public prayers. It was clear to me that here was no connection between morality or godly behavior and the recitation of prayers in public schools.
American Baptists were not alone in accepting the Supreme Court ruling about school prayers. Southern Baptists agreed. The Southern Baptists came into being in the1840s when they segregated themselves from other Baptists. It should come as no great surprise that race was the dividing factor. The specific issue, as I understand it, was whether slave holders could be missionaries.
But even with the split, Southern Baptists maintained the same doctrinal positions as other Baptists. They maintained that the Bible only authorized two sacraments—adult baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. They also were without a hierarchy. There was a Southern Baptist Convention to which churches sent “messengers,” but the pronouncements of the SBC did not bind anyone; they were just recommendations or urgings or food for thought. As with American Baptists, the church was congregation-based with the congregants selecting a minister. And Southern Baptists also believed in the strict separation of church and state. Thus, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention said shortly after the Supreme Court decision finding public school prayers unconstitutional that the decision was “one of the most powerful blows in our lifetime, maybe since the Constitution was adopted, for the freedom of religion in our lifetime.”
Soon thereafter, however, Southern Baptists started changing their positions. In 1982, the SBC supported a constitutional amendment that would have allowed individual or group prayer in public schools as long as the government did not require participation in the prayer. (This was a curious proposal. Individual prayer was never outlawed, and of course, a silent prayer could not be. Surely, I am not the only one who reached out to the Almighty before a calculus exam. A spoken prayer might run into troubles with school authorities, not because it was a prayer, but because any vocalization might have been disruptive to school order. Part of the power of prayer, it seems to me, is that at least silent ones can be said anywhere, including in government facilities.) (To be continued.)