In Response To ... Baptists Backtracking
                                on Freedom











  More Writings by Bruce Gourley


Note: This essay first appeared in the March 2006 Baptist Studies Bulletin.

            One would be hard pressed to argue against “freedom” as the primary foundation of the American nation, despite historical shortcomings in realizing this ideal.  Baptists from the early seventeenth century onward contributed significantly, and indisputably, to the ideal of freedom on two fronts: religious liberty for all citizens (separation of church and state) and freedom of conscience within the Baptist family.
            This dual rallying cry of freedom remained the staple of Baptist belief in America from the early seventeenth century into the 1970s.  Then something unprecedented took shape as more and more Baptists backtracked on their heritage of freedom.  Today, many Baptists emphatically deny the historical reality of the separation of church and state and freedom of conscience, choosing instead to embrace myths and lies on a path to religious power and privilege sanctioned by government.
            For example, freedom of religion is now under attack in Missouri with the blessing of Missouri Baptist leader David Clippard.  On March 3, 2006, the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee approved a resolution that advocates for official Christian prayer in public schools and asserts that elected officials “should protect the majority’s right to express their religious beliefs while showing respect for those who object.”  Clippard voiced his support: “The foundation of this country started with Christianity, and this just goes back and acknowledges where we started.”  If our nation’s founding fathers had sanctioned an official faith in the federal constitution, Baptists, a dissident, liberal, trouble-making minority in the eighteenth century, might yet today be whipped, beaten and jailed for merely expressing their faith in public!
            In addition, freedom of conscience is also under attack by fundamentalist Baptists.  Baptist Press of the Southern Baptist Convention periodically trots out commentaries on the evils of freedom of conscience, the latest of which denies the Baptist heritage of freedom as nothing more than a “moderate virus” which includes “a deficient view of biblical authority, a radical view of individualism, a nigh unto secularist view of religious liberty.”  Recently Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, mocked attempts by Presbyterians “to preserve the freedom of conscience and the interpretation of Scripture,” a proposal he labeled a conclusive “failure.”
            To be certain, both religious liberty and freedom of conscience are historically liberal ideals, and modern fundamentalist Baptists are anything but amiable to that which smacks of liberalism.  Perhaps this is why some Baptists are committed to opposing freedom.  Mohler, speaking of the troubles within the Presbyterian denomination, asserts “If individual conscience is allowed to invalidate the clear teachings of Scripture, the denomination faces an unavoidable disaster.”
            Yet perhaps the following statement against freedom sums up best the modern fundamentalist Baptist hatred of liberalism and its corollary, freedom: “[liberalism] sets up a human standard, at the bar, of which the inspiration of the Bible is tried, and … condemned for coming in direct conflict with certain principles of human nature, termed the ‘higher law’ … Freedom will become its watchword … freedom to reject the Bible–free thinking, free loving, free acting, in a word freedom from all the moral restraints which make society virtuous and desirable.”
             Although this anti-freedom diatribe echoes the voices of today’s Baptist enemies of freedom, the author was Ebenezer W. Warren, a Georgia Baptist pastor and leader during the mid-nineteenth century.  Speaking at the conclusion of his 1861 sermon entitled, “Scriptural Vindication of Slavery,” Warren resoundingly condemned Baptist and government anti-slavery voices in the North for allowing the ideal of freedom to override the clear teachings of Scripture which sanctioned the enslavement of African-Americans. Representing the darkest chapter in the history of Baptists in the South, Warren declared the bondage of African-Americans as “a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man,” insisting that “Both Christianity and Slavery are from Heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time.”  Over 100 years after Warren’s sermon, many white Baptists yet refused to acknowledge the ideal of freedom for African-Americans.
             Tragically, one of the greatest dangers to the ideal of freedom today lies within the Baptist family and threatens both the authentic Baptist faith of our ancestors and the very foundation of our nation.  The Apostle Paul, speaking nearly 2000 years ago to Galatian Christians who were buffeted by enemies of freedom from within, offers a timeless word to us today:  “do not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the Gospel might remain in you …. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 2:5, 5:1).