WASHINGTON (ABP) — The erosion of support for the First Amendment among high-school students sounds like “a death announcement about someone you love,” church historian Walter Shurden told attendees at a conference sponsored by the First Freedoms Project.
Shurden, executive director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University, delivered the keynote address for the April 14-15 conference, called “Free to Worship, Free to Know,” which focused on the freedoms of religion and of the press.
“One in three high-school students in this republic says that the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States goes too far in the rights it guarantees to you as a citizen,” Shurden said, citing a recent Knight Foundation survey of 100,000 high-school students. “These are astonishing and inconceivable attitudes for high-school students in the United States of America. This is a scary phone call in the middle of the night about what has happened in our nation.”
The First Freedoms Project is a cooperative effort of Associated Baptist Press, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Baptists Today news journal and supportive congregations to celebrate and support the “founding freedoms” of religious liberty and freedom of the press.
Beginning with the inaugural celebration of First Freedoms Day July 3 of this year, the project will provide congregations with resource materials for education and worship around the themes of religious liberty and freedom of the press. The three Baptist organizations also are seeking joint financial support from congregations.
During the two-day conference in Washington, participants toured the Jefferson Memorial and Supreme Court, met with two congressmen, and “met” 18th-century Baptist preacher and religious-liberty pioneer John Leland, portrayed by historian Fred Anderson of Richmond.
Shurden lamented the fact that sermons in a Baptist church on religious liberty, freedom of conscience and separation of church and state that once were “old hat” now cause a negative energy in the room that he called “sanctuary electricity.”
Even more discouraging, Shurden said, “sanctuary electricity will become sanctuary applause” if you preach sermons “that reinforce prejudices that the phrase ‘separation of church and state' is not in the Constitution,” that “the First Amendment has been misinterpreted and taken too far,” or that “certain religious groups in this country need to conform to our particular religious customs.”
A group of four pastors, speaking in an April 15 panel discussion, said promoting religious liberty and church-state separation is becoming difficult even in moderate Baptist congregations.
“It seems to me that the first line of battle today for us as we wage a kind of battle for religious liberty is to keep our own people on board,” said David Sapp, pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta. “And I think that's probably radically different from other periods of Baptist history.”
Both Sapp and Hardy Clemons, retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., said pastors need to be less fearful when talking to their congregations about their support for religious freedom.
“Look for times and places when you can articulate an advocacy for religious liberty,” Clemons said. “Congregations will support us far more than we think they will. And those of you who are laity have enormous power to encourage your clergy to do precisely that.”
Shurden, in his keynote address, said Baptists have become “an historically illiterate people” in regard to the First Amendment.
“With age, we Baptists have developed cataracts,” Shurden said. “Our denominational vision, once crystal clear on First Amendment issues, today is opaque. Impervious to the light of our denominational history and family commitments, we have blocked out heroic chapters of our very own story.”
Shurden said that part of the reason for Baptists' cloudy vision is the subtle, ambiguous language used to describe the issues of the day, such as “faith-based charity,” “prayer in public schools” and “vouchers for taxpayers.”
In addition to forgetting their denominational story, Shurden suggested Baptists also have to address a stubborn secularism and a baffling pluralism.
“Historically, Baptists have been willing to take on secularism in the free market of ideas,” Shurden said. “They have done it with success. And they have done it without the aid and assistance of government.”
In describing America's pluralism, Shurden drew from Charles Kimball's 2002 book When Religion Becomes Evil, saying: “We Baptists, though often perceived as excessively sectarian and fundamentalist, bring a wealth of ideas to the world of religious pluralism. And the freedom that we bring does not cancel the faith we tenaciously hold.”
Shurden also offered suggestions on what Baptists could do to shore up the First Amendment. He said Baptists should support school boards that fight to uphold the First Amendment despite enormous pressures. Shurden suggested that Baptists financially support organizations that are seeking to educate others and that all should stay informed on issues related to religion's relationship to government.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Shurden said, Baptist must “approach the task with the passion it demands.”
“I believe that in the great moral struggles of human history passion wins,” Shurden said. “Like you, I believe that this is a moral universe and that truth and justice are built-in components of our world. I do not believe, however, that truth and justice always prevail. And I certainly do not believe that truth and justice prevail unassisted.
“Truth and justice triumph only when passionate people act passionately about issues of truth and justice. The First Amendment is a justice issue.”