First Amendment restrictions apply to government, not citizens, say Baptist scholars

FORT WORTH—The Baptist definition of “separation of church and state” is quite different from the secular-humanist definition formulated by the American judiciary over the past half century, Barrett Duke, vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said during a roundtable discussion that closed out the first Baptist Distinctives Conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Sept. 9-10.

“It is more appropriate to talk about separation of state from church than separation of church and state,” Duke said, adding that he “couldn’t say it any better” than Article 17 of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2000 Baptist Faith and Message:

“‘God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.’

“The First Amendment doesn’t address the church at all,” Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson observed, adding that only limitations on government are mentioned.  The government cannot establish or interfere with the church, he explained, noting the warning against the encroachment of government on the spiritual life of people.

“Naturally it affects the church in that, no matter how much I’d like to see how it would look, I can’t insist only on having Baptist legislators, a Baptist president and Baptist courts,” Patterson said

“We’ve tried those Baptist presidents,” reminded Russell Moore, dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, drawing laughter from the crowd.

“That was rough,” Patterson added.

“There is ample evidence that just because a man has membership in a church with a Baptist shingle out front does not qualify him to be president, and being a Baptist does not necessarily mean he will make a good president,” Patterson later stated in answering a question about evaluating candidates.

“Oftentimes,” he said, it is necessary to vote for the person who “will bring the least evil.”

Agreeing that Southern Baptists ought to guard against unqualified political allegiance to a particular party, he expressed greater frustration at the lack of prophetic ministry by Baptist preachers given the opportunity to visit the President of the United States. “They left their prophetic credentials in the car when they went in and were so honored to be in the Oval office they forgot why they’re there.”

Retired Judge Paul Pressler of Houston, on the other hand, offered a positive assessment of the influence of Southern Baptists on the culture, in general.

“Southern Baptists have been able to exert some pressure to move us back in the right direction on some of these things,” Pressler stated. “I think we’re gaining a little bit of ground, though Dr. Patterson would say I’m overly optimistic.”

More specifically, American society’s view of religious liberty gives reason for concern, several panelists argued.

Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recalled an earlier address by ERLC President Richard Land on the modern American judiciary’s shift in the meaning of separation of church and state.

Referring to two major shifts, Heimbach said, “One came from viewing the religion clause as a restriction on the government from interfering in the religious life of the church and individuals, to a restriction of individuals and the church from influencing in any way the workings of government and public policy.

“That was a big shift,” Heimbach added.

A second, possibly related shift is seen in moving from separating the institutions of the church and the state to separating any type of faith conviction from influencing the public order, Heimbach said.

Heimbach observed that Thomas Jefferson, on the day after he wrote the reference to separation of church and state to Danbury Baptists, traveled to the House of Representative’s chambers for a religious worship service.

“That was not considered a violation (of the First Amendment),” Heimbach noted. Instead of the reference being made in regard to certain activities such as chaplains in the military, he said it addressed official institutional endorsement.

“There is a shift from that to more and more trying to absolutize a separation of politics from religion so that [the First Amendment inhibits] anything that has religion for its foundation and motivation.” He added, “All morality comes from religious presuppositions, whether traditional or not.”

Heimbach distinguished between religious liberty and true religious autonomy with no limitation. “There are limits with respect to harming others, flying airplanes into trade towers, sacrifices or even [use of] narcotic drugs,” he noted.

Pressler added that an individual who tries to rationalize drug use by appealing to religious liberty is governed by the laws of society. “If society cannot protect itself against those things that would destroy society, then society is a mess. The right of protection of society itself outweighs his religious liberty to use this drug,” he said.

Heimbach reiterated the concept that government has an obligation to protect the public, “as in the case of adults preying sexually on young people and taking advantage of trusted positions to do so,” referring to the recent scandal among Roman Catholic priests.

“It was handled absolutely correctly,” Patterson said of the government prosecuting criminals, not the Catholic Church. “They didn’t prosecute them because they were Catholics or priests, but because they were criminals. Then the Catholic Church has gotten the penalty for not supervising its own by individual tort actions by the people victimized.”

Then again, religious liberty cannot be forced at the point of a sword nor through the pouring of water, Duke said. “It has to be through the preaching of the Word,” he insisted.

Asked whether international missionaries should advocate the Baptist ideal of religious liberty, particularly in countries where it does not exist, Patterson said missionaries should not be diverted from their primary purpose in sharing the gospel. Political activity must not hinder the presentation of the gospel, he said.

While missionaries have to respond to their consciences leading them, Duke said they must “act in accordance with what God would have [them] do.”


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