“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” First Amendment to the United States Constitution
One of America’s greatest freedoms perhaps has spawned more controversy than all of our country’s other freedoms combined. What makes the First Amendment ripe for disagreement and debate has more to do with what it does not say than for what it does. Let me demonstrate.
After thousands of readings — from middle school social studies classes to law school to writing this post — I have looked in vain for the words “separation of church and state” in the body of the First Amendment. Funny thing is, I have never been able to find those words in the text.
Of course, famously written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, have never been a part of the Bill of Rights. But, to hear Virginia Baptists tell it, you would think that Jefferson and Madison included this controversial language as part of our nation’s most well-known amendment.
At this year’ annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Religious Liberty Committee of the BGAV introduced a resolution entitled, “Inaccurate history threatens religious liberty.” The impetus driving the Committee was articulated by Chairman Rob James:
“One of the things that frightened us [the committee] 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”
You see, the recent revisions of history textbooks by conservative Christians on the Texas State Board of Education caused the consternation among members of the Religious Liberty Committee which led to the writing and introduction of the resolution.
The resolution itself, which originally singled out “David Barton, W. Cleon Skousen and ‘some Reconstructionist authors’ who the committee said had engaged in “systematic efforts” to revise American history” was subsequently revised by the committee to remove any reference to the aforementioned individuals.
However, front and center in this resolution was the oft-repeated notion of the “separation of church and state.” In fact, the committee’s language almost seems to indicate that they believe that this phrase was actually included in the First Amendment:
“Whereas, 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, and
Whereas, the labors of Virginians, notably Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison, and the Baptist minister John Leland, were crucial in the historic events that made these two principles part of our nation’s Bill of Rights, and . . .” (emphasis added)
Even in the BGAV, this resolution, trumpeting the “separation of church and state,” was not without controversy itself. Just the very mention of those words cause some conservatives pastors (yes, there still are conservative pastors in the BGAV) to react negatively and with an understandable dose of suspicion.
I should know. For 5 1/2 years, I was one of those conservative pastors in the BGAV. And, for full disclosure, I also had the privilege of serving on the Religious Liberty Committee before I moved to New Mexico.
As a member of the committee, I brought a conservative voice and perspective to religious liberty issues that affected Virginia Baptists. While I did not necessarily agree with the other members on every issue that we tackled, there was a mutual respect and gracious attitude that prevailed. Maybe it was the genteel spirit which characterizes Virginia Baptists, but there was never any contention or rancor between myself and the more “moderate” members of the Religious Liberty Committee, even when we did not see eye-to-eye.
I thoroughly enjoyed serving with my fellow Virginia Baptists on this important committee. I do not know if there are currently more “conservative” members of the committee nor do I presume to know why the committee chose the particular language that they did, but I would have avoided loaded language like “separation of church and state.”
No matter what that phrase may have originally meant and no matter what some Virginia Baptists think that it means, that language has come to mean different things to different people. Joseph Giles, pastor of James Square Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Va., no doubt spoke for many conservatives when he said:
“The definition of separation of church and state today is not what the man who coined the phrase meant by it. Whereas Jefferson understood the concept to mean that government could not coerce belief, many today take it to mean that religious faith should be excluded from public life. The notion [of separation of church and state] held by people today is the real revisionism.”
Even though the resolution passed overwhelmingly, I would have advocated that the “separation of church and state” language not be included. Why? Because even though it might feel good for some to use this phrase, it is unnecessary. One could simply use the language of the First Amendment itself to craft a resolution expressing Virginia Baptists’ strong support for the principles of religious liberty.
Agree or disagree, Virginia Baptists always give their fellow Baptists something to think about. Their strong championing of the First Amendment will not always be appreciated nor understood by some within the Baptist family. We may not always see things the same way that our brothers and sisters do in the Commonwealth of Virginia. When that happens, might we remember to thank God for the wonderful religious liberty that we enjoy in America! And, please remember to thank our veterans for their sacrifice so that we might be continue to be a free people in a free land!