Seventeenth century Baptists would have known exactly what was happening when two Rowan County, N.C., state legislators recently proposed a resolution, affirmed by 11 other legislative colleagues, that declared that the United States Constitution does not “prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
The resolution did not specify which religion could be privileged, but the state officials made it clear that their actions were in response to an ACLU court challenge to the practice of allowing deity-specific prayers, particularly references “in Jesus name,” at regular meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. Similar court cases have arisen throughout the state.
The resolution began with an affirmation of “states’ rights,” noting: "The Constitution of the United States does not grant the federal government and does not grant the federal courts the power to determine what is or is not constitutional; therefore, by virtue of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the power to determine constitutionality and the proper interpretation and proper application of the Constitution is reserved to the states and to the people."
Thus, “Each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
The resolution concluded: “The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
Implicit in the document was the idea that, while the First Amendment prohibits the U. S. government from establishing a state-favored religion, North Carolina may choose otherwise.
How 17th century of us. Indeed, we old-timey Baptists are compelled to return to the words of our 17th century forebears, some writing from prison, to make the point to 21st century establishmentarians.
Baptist founder Thomas Helwys was one of the first to say it, writing in A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612): “Let the King judge, is it not most equal that men should choose their religion themselves, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgment seat of god to answer for themselves, when it shall be no excuse for them to say, We were commanded or compelled to be of this religion by the king or by them that had authority from him.”
Or Dr. John Clarke, Baptist founder of Rhode Island, writing freely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a livelier experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained … with a full liberty in religious concernments.”
Why is this happening 400 years later? Perhaps because the religious pluralism those Baptists anticipated has found its way into the North Carolina hinterlands — Buncombe, Madison, Rowan and Stokes counties, not just Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro. Some folks in those counties aren’t opposed to prayer; they are opposed to prayer at government-based gatherings that begin like Christian church services.
The issue is not the loss of religious liberty, but loss of religious privilege. As the churches lose their traditional footholds in the culture, some want the state to prop it up by teaching Bible in public schools, privileging particular kinds of prayers at government meetings, and even making Christianity or a certain kind of Christianity “an establishment of religion” — chilling words for 17th-century Baptists.
The rest of us are forced back to Roger Williams’s assertion in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) that “true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either Jew or Gentile.”
We Baptists must extend that assertion to 21st century establishmentarians, learning from our radical ancestors that when the church depends on government to protect its faith by privileging it, it has ceased to be the church.
Realizing that, perhaps we can then stop pouting over the loss of culture-privilege and renew our own commitment to creative ministry — traditional and nontraditional — in a pluralistic society, one anticipated in 17th-century Rhode Island.
Fortunately, the public outcry and coverage was so vast that the resolution on religious establishment was withdrawn and its authors apologized even as they promised to pursue their goals through more subtle methods.
Eighteenth-century Virginia Baptist John Leland was right: “The fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity, has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did.”
It appears that North Carolina won’t have “an establishment of religion” any time soon. But we 17th-century Baptists have been warned.
Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University. This article originally appeared at ABPnews.com, where he writes a biweekly column.