Old/new churches, old/new realities

Few people in the 19th century would have guessed that Southern Baptists would elect an African-American as president or that the Roman Catholic Church would be speaking out for religious liberty.

By Bill Leonard

Southern Baptists have just elected their first African-American denominational president, Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. are promoting a “religious liberty drive against a government and culture that are infringing on the church’s rights,” as Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times in November 2011. Thirteen Catholic dioceses recently filed suit against what they view as a violation of their religious liberty through government efforts to require contraceptive coverage for female employees of non-congregational, Catholic owned institutions.

Claiming some 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. With over 60 million adherents, the Roman Catholic Church is America’s largest religious group. Both are very conservative with theological and ethical views that are at once contradictory and complementary. Both are old churches acting in new ways.

In 1845, when the SBC was founded, and Catholic immigration was beginning to alarm the Protestant majority, few people inside and outside those religious communions would have predicted these recent actions from the two groups.

The SBC was born, in part, after the Triennial Convention, the missionary society of Baptists North and South, rejected an 1844 demand from Alabama Baptists that the society recognize the right of slaveholders to receive missionary appointment. In opposing the request the board stated: “One thing is certain: we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery.”

Insisting that their mandate to evangelize the world had been compromised, Baptists in the South formed a new denomination, the SBC. In his classic work, At Ease in Zion, historian Rufus Spain wrote that after the Confederacy’s defeat, “Baptists never repudiated slavery and secession, the two alleged causes of the war.”

It was not until 1995 that the SBC as an organization went on record as repudiating its institutional acquiescence to slavery and racism in the South. That action and this week’s election of Pastor Luter are important attempts at racial reconciliation inside and beyond the SBC. They are events to be celebrated, even after all these years.

Likewise, few mid-19th century Americans would have anticipated recent appeals to freedom of conscience and religious liberty from the Catholic hierarchy. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1867) repudiated the “modern” idea “That every man is free to embrace and profess the religion he shall believe true, guided by the light of reason.”

It also rejected the suggestion “That Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion; in which it is possible to please God equally as in the Catholic Church.” It was not until the 1960s that Catholic leaders opened the door to religious liberty, both in the documents of Vatican Council II and in Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

Commenting on those documents, John Courtney Murray wrote that they made two “essential points.” First, that everyone “by right of nature ... has the right to the free exercise of religion in society according to the dictates of his personal conscience.” And second, “others in the society,” especially leaders of the state, are obligated “to acknowledge this personal right, to respect it in practice, and to promote its free exercise.”

Clearly, it took centuries for Roman Catholic hierarchies to accept and appreciate religious liberty in all its implications. Nonetheless, these actions too are nothing short of historic and deserve considerable celebration.

These developments in the SBC and RCC are also important for what they say about the state of American religion in general. For one thing, they reflect the fact that two of the country’s largest religious groups are feeling considerable loss of previous culture privilege.

Southern Baptist leaders acknowledge the impact of declining numbers, diminishing Baptist identity and growing minority populations in regions previously dominated by the white majority they consistently represented.

Catholic leaders voice their concern that an encroaching secular society is attempting to drive them from the public square “back to the sacristy,” as New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently remarked.

Both groups assert strong doctrinal mandates that set boundaries for those who wish to join or maintain membership. The SBC sent a “moderate” contingent packing while the present pope encourages departures for those whose views are perceived unorthodox.

Amid affirmation, questions abound. Will SBC leaders be willing to invite Rev. Luter and other Baptists of color into the inner circles of denominational power and institutional formation? Will additional presidents representing “minority” constituencies be essential in extending racial/ethnic diversity throughout convention life and leadership?

Will the explicit emphasis on conscience and religious liberty among Roman Catholic clergy allow them to revisit issues that have long vexed the consciences of Baptists and others regarding American appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican and the use of vouchers and other public funds for Catholic parochial schools? Religious liberty goes both ways.

Affirmations of racial reconciliation and religious liberty are great issues for celebration and enduring conversation among persons in the SBC, the RCC, and the rest of what Thomas Merton called that “body of broken bones,” the Church.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.