WASHINGTON (ABP) — Baptists who believe in church-state separation need to do a better job of defending that principle in the public arena, two members of Congress counseled at a recent conference.
Speaking in Washington April 14 at a conference on the First Amendment co-sponsored by three Baptist organizations, Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and David Price (D-N.C.) both said moderate Baptists need to defend the principle more aggressively. Price also counseled humility.
The comments came during the two-day First Freedoms Conference, which focused on religious freedom and freedom of the press as intertwined principles. The meeting was sponsored by Associated Baptist Press, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Baptists Today news journal.
Edwards, a Methodist who attends Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, said religious defenders of church-state separation need to reclaim language they have ceded to the Religious Right. “The other side is beating us in defining the debate,” he said.
Politicians who support the principle become fewer after every congressional election, he added.
“Why are we moving backwards? The simple reason is the massive coalition arrayed against us,” he said, noting that the “bully pulpit of the White House” and wealthy conservative think tanks and Religious Right groups are dominating the airwaves and casting the debate over church-state separation as a simple battle between those who despise religious influence in public life and those who believe church-state separation is simply a myth.
“It's very misguided to think that the principle of church-state separation requires the total privatization of religion,” Price, a Baptist, told conference participants, who gathered for a banquet at The Freedom Forum near Washington. “We're called to the public arena, and what we advocate, and what we fight for in politics will often have a strong relationship to what we believe in.”
Price, a member of Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., said Christians and other religious people who strongly support the First Amendment's establishment clause — which bars government establishment of religion — need to explain to the public why the principle is actually pro-religious.
He noted a failed constitutional amendment that would have loosened the First Amendment's rules on government-sanctioned prayer and other religious activities. Price said the so-called “Istook Amendment” was defeated in part because some religious people realized that government forcing religious practice would ultimately prove dangerous to their belief in free will.
“What religious freedom is about, and what that proposed amendment threatened, was not just civil liberty but also religious faithfulness — rooted in the religious tradition itself, not something imposed from outside,” Price said. “That's the spirit in which I think the establishment clause ought to be interpreted.”
Edwards, meanwhile, counseled conference participants to take more specific steps in defending church-state separation in the political realm.
He encouraged groups that support religious freedom to join in a concerted effort to defend church-state separation in the judicial, political and media realms.
In the political realm, Edwards noted, politicians who stand up for religious freedom need more “political cover.”
Edwards called for the creation of a political-action committee that would provide funding and media defense of politicians who support church-state separation. “There's no political defense now for those willing to stand up for church-state separation,” Edwards said. “Politicians are afraid to appear anti-religious. So this is a powerful force.”
Edwards spoke from experience. Texas Republicans targeted him for defeat by redrawing his congressional district last year. Although Edwards narrowly won, he faced harsh opposition for some of his votes on church-state issues. One ad accused him of not wanting schoolchildren to “pray for our troops” because he voted against a congressional resolution telling all Americans that it was their “duty” to pray.
“Isn't it amazing that you can be called 'un-American' and 'un-Texan' for saying you believe in the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights?” asked Edwards, referring to the First Amendment. “The other side preaches the Ten Commandments, but they break the Ninth Commandment [against lying] on a regular basis.”
Edwards also encouraged a stronger media strategy for supporters of church-state separation so opponents can no longer portray the debate as simply between anti-religion and pro-religion forces.
He referred specifically to the recent Ten Commandments case in Alabama. In it, church-state separationists succeeded in not only removing a monument to the Ten Commandments erected by Chief Justice Roy Moore in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building but also deposing him from office.
Nonetheless, opinion polls consistently reveal broad public support for Moore and his cause.
“Did we win the legal battle? Yes. [But] in the court of public opinion, we lost badly,” Edwards said.
He encouraged the establishment of a group of “30-40 retired Baptist pastors” who could travel around the country to counter Ten Commandments activists who travel and demonstrate in support of such displays.
Because the only other counter-protesters are often atheists in such instances, Edwards said, the news media — and particularly television outlets — end up casting the complex debate over the First Amendment in simplistic terms.
“They see this as a debate of: Are you for the Ten Commandments or are you against them?” he said. “In the media, I think we need to go on the offense…. I am so tired of playing defense.”
Despite such challenges, Price counseled humility in dealing with those who disagree on church-state issues.
“There is, I think, at the heart of the Jewish and Christian traditions a kind of counsel of humility — a sense that our will and our program… [are] never to be confused with God's will,” he said. “It's pervasive in the prophets, and it's pervasive in our religious tradition.”
The belief that all people are imperfect and “live under God's transcendent mercy and judgment … should encompass everything we do in public life,” Price continued. “That kind of sense of humility and that sense of perspective is so often missing today from people whose theology should teach them better.”