By Bill Leonard
At a Baptist gathering several years ago I was approached by an intense, well-meaning, recent seminary graduate (aren’t they all intense and well-meaning?) who rushed up and declared: “I’ve just seen Dr. James Dunn and he looked so thin and boney! I’m really worried about him!” “Not to worry,” I replied, “he’s looked like that for 40 years.”
James Milton Dunn, Baptist preacher, professor, ethicist, religious liberty advocate, prophet and relentless pain in the American religious and political establishment, died a little after noon on July 4, 2015, at the age of 83. If you know anything about him at all, you know that James Dunn was a Baptist phenomenon, in his own words a “Texas-bred, Spirit-let, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist.”
He’s had a varied, if not at times checkered, career beginning as a pastor in Weatherford, Texas, then a campus minister at West Texas State University (now apparently part of the Texas A&M system); then a stint as director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, a social action group that fought racism, poverty, gambling, liquor and other ethical concerns. (I don’t think they formally battled against dancing and movies, but I never asked him about that.)
Then he moved to Washington, D.C., as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, now the BJC for Religious Liberty, a lobbying agency and think tank connected to multiple Baptist groups around the country. Retiring there after 19 years of service, he joined the faculty of the fledgling School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, as Resident Professor of Religion and Public Policy, an adjunctive position he kept until 2014.
I was dean of the school during some of those years and am pleased to have had a part in convincing the Dunns, James and Marilyn, to stop commuting from Washington and settle in Winston-Salem for the duration. At WFU Dunn taught Christian ethics, church/state, religion and public policy, and “God and the New York Times: Religion in Contemporary America,” a course we taught together for several years — one of the most fun courses I ever taught.
Our lives intersected in so many ways. The Leonards, Candyce and Bill and the Dunns, James and Marilyn, all attended Fort Worth’s Paschal High School, but some 15 years apart. Candyce, James and I also graduated from Texas Wesleyan while Marilyn sold out and went to Baylor! James and I both have degrees from the Baptist seminary in Fort Worth.
But before all that, I first heard him speak at a Baptist meeting when I was 9 years old. It was at the Royal Ambassador (Baptist Boy Scouts) Congress in Abilene, Texas, when I was 9 and he was in his early 20s. (I miscalculated the date when I wrote the Forward to Aaron Weaver’s excellent 2011 biographical study titled James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom). I don’t remember hearing him, but I found the program in some papers my mother had kept and discovered that he was on the program of the RA Congress. We actually became acquainted decades later when I was finishing Boston University and he was speaker for an event at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Cambridge in January 1975. He found out I was on my way to teach at the Baptist seminary in Louisville, we stayed in touch, and the rest is history.
Our friendship deepened when the “Baptist Battles” struck within the Southern Baptist Convention — I a young, naive liberal, Dunn a seasoned progressive warhorse whose outspoken comments on public policy, church/state issues and denominational politics made him a lightning rod for conservative criticism and the SBC’s break with the Baptist Joint Committee in 1990. One memorable line, flashed across the Internet after his death declared: “Seems like everybody wants a theocracy and everybody wants to be theo.” In those years he taught me not to be afraid to say what you believe; claim your conscience; and let the gospel fall where it may. I’m not nearly as fearless as he, but (as he would say) I learned how to gird up my theological loins and get on with it.
Dunn’s sense of conscience was grounded in his own unashamed (mostly) identity as a Baptist. Mirroring his Baptist forebears, Dunn insisted that neither state nor state-privileged church might coerce the conscience of the heretic or the atheist. But since churches and states often demand that privilege, dissent for conscience’ sake is essential. Dunn was nothing if not a dissenter.
Several years ago a couple I’ve known for years brought their older son to look over WFU. Dunn and I took them to lunch and Dunn told all kinds of stories about American politics and religion. Their younger son, a preteen, was also along, and when lunch was over the family walked back across the WFU quad. Then the younger son blurted out: “You know that old guy we just had lunch with? When I get old I want to be just like him!”
So do we all, James, so do we all. I’d tell you to rest in peace, but it wouldn’t do any good, even in eternity.