Alongside the rise and growth of the Christian Nationalism movement in America, the story of Baptists has essentially been shoved aside. So effectively have Christian Nationalists pitched phony history, that they have ensnared many unsuspecting Americans into believing their false claim that “the separation of church and state is a myth.”
Many, perhaps most, Baptists in America today do not know their own faith history. And many Christians in America do not know their nation’s true religious heritage.
In reality, church state separation is central to the Baptist story and to America’s founding principles and faith heritage.
In 1644, American Baptist founder Roger Williams (persecuted by “Christian” colonial theocrats, who considered Baptists heretical) called for a “wall of separation” between church and state. Baptists’ “wall of separation” would prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion, and prevent government from incorporating religion into governance.
Generations of Baptists were persecuted, and shed blood, in the fight (against colonial theocracies) to separate church and state. Their triumph finally came in the enactment of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, establishing the Baptist vision of a “wall of separation” between church and state.
Deniers of church state separation often respond that the phrase “wall of separation” is not in the U. S. Constitution, and was not introduced until 1802, by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Danbury Baptists.
The claim that Jefferson created the “wall of separation” language to describe church state separation is clearly false and reflects a lack of historical knowledge. As to the contention that the phrase is not in the U. S. Constitution, the concept clearly is in the Constitution. By way of comparision, the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, yet most deniers of church state separation probably believe in the Trinity (and would argue that belief in the Trinity is fundamental to a biblical faith).
More importantly, Christians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries clearly understood that the First Amendment wording – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – separated church from state. Their testimony bears much more weight than the fabricated history loved by many modern conservative Christians and politicians.
In short, denying church state separation mocks our nation’s founding principles and faith heritage. Church state separation was good for America in 1791, and it is good for America now. To see the problems of merging church and state, look to the Middle East, where conservative religious law (Sharia Law, rooted in the biblical Old Testament) rules.
Church state separation is our Baptist heritage. It is also an American moral value of which we all can be proud. Twenty-first century Baptists should be offended that Christian Nationalists have removed our story from the historical record in order to further advance their phony, self-serving “history.”
For More Information:
Religion and State Governments (Library of Congress)
Baptists on Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State (Walter B. Shurden)
The Top Five Myths of the Separtion of Church and State (Brent Walker, BJC)
Three More Misguided Myths About Church State Separation (Brent Walker, BJC)
History of Religious Liberty in America (Charles Hayne, First Amendment Center)