Several years ago I put a self-imposed moratorium on employing the term “separation of church and state.” When I wrote the book Baptist Ways: A History, I don’t think I referenced the phrase unless citing its use in the Baptist past. Rather, words like “religious liberty” or “religious freedom” seem more expansive and descriptive of one of early Baptist’s most distinctive characteristics and contributions to church and state alike. Religious liberty compels dissent since states and churches are ever tempted to cut deals with each other.
Recently I accepted an invitation to participate in the American Values, American Religion project in which 100 academics from various religious traditions wrote letters to be sent to President Trump, Vice President Pence, assorted cabinet members and legislators, one letter a day for the first 100 days of the new administration. Each of us was asked to address issues out of our own particular faith perspectives or traditions. My letter, published Jan. 29, reads:
“Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,
“The Baptist tradition that I claim and that claims me began in religious dissent. Thomas Helwys, Baptist founder, resisted all attempts by government or state-privileged religions to coerce individual faith. In A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612), he [Helwys] advised King James I that governments should permit all persons to ‘choose their religion themselves, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgment seat of God … ‘ 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.’
“In 1636, when the Puritan religious establishment exiled Roger Williams, America’s quintessential dissenter, into the ‘howling wilderness’ of New England, he purchased land from the Narragansets, founding Providence (Rhode Island) the first colony to offer liberty to persons of differing religions or no religion at all. Williams called it ‘a shelter for persons distressed of conscience’ communicating his ‘purchase to loving friends … who desired to take shelter here with me.’
“Good citizenship, Williams said, was not limited to Christians, but ‘Jews, Turks, [Muslims] or anti-Christians’ could ‘be peaceable and quiet subjects, loving and helpful neighbours.’ Williams’ legacy continued with 18th-century Virginia Baptist John Leland, who asserted that ‘Bible Christians and Deists’ alike were free to resist ‘self-named Christians,’ who tyrannized ‘the consciences of others, under the specious garb of religion and good order.’
“Across American history, such religious pluralism is often granted grudgingly, whether exiling Baptists, hanging Quakers, shooting Catholics and Mormons, jailing Jehovah’s Witnesses, or burning churches, mosques, and synagogues along the way. Dissent remains perilous.
“I hope the U.S. endures as ‘a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.’ Those who prefer otherwise can blame the early Baptists.”
No sooner was the letter released than President Trump announced at the “National Prayer Breakfast” that he would move quickly to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, that 1954 law that restricts tax-exempt churches and nonprofits from endorsing specific candidates for public office. Apparently many in Trump’s 81 percent evangelical-voter base have urged him to revoke the law, believing that it violates their religious liberty. Truth is, many churches, left and right, are politically active, voicing positions and concerns “for conscience sake” in the public square. Yet many right-of-center Christians insist on their right to endorse “Christian candidates” while still bellying up to the governmental trough for tax exemption, and the ministerial-housing-allowance-tax-break (look it up).
Such tax benefits are the central reason why I avoid the phrase “separation of church and state,” and why, as an old-timey Baptist, I oppose overturning the Johnson Amendment. If church and state were really separate, then churches and ministers wouldn’t be receiving government entitlements. So if the Johnson Amendment were annulled, churches that endorse candidates should relinquish their tax exemption “for conscience sake.” It would be a great witness for religious and gospel liberty.
But my greater concern regarding the proposed legal revision is not about the government, but the church. Revocation of the Johnson ruling could split churches wide open.There are indeed congregations that reflect strong consensus on social and political agendas, including candidates. I suspect most involve persons with varying, even contradictory, approaches to government and governing, but who choose to worship and minister together.
Will we create an ecclesio-political situation that further divides already fragmented Christian denominations, congregations and individuals? Will churches self-identify as First Baptist (Republican), or Mount Pisgah (Democratic) Missionary Baptist? Will campaign contributions now be included in stewardship appeals, i.e. “feed the poor or help the party?”
Even now, I know of certain ministers who are being warned/threatened to avoid politicization in the pulpit, while others are chastised for failure to express political positions favored by certain members of their flock. In my view, abolishing the Johnson Amendment, especially in this volatile moment in American political life, deepens the possibility of churchly schism and interpersonal dissonance.
Conscience and gospel oblige us all to respond to the injustices we perceive in the nation and the world. But Christian conscience underwritten by tax favors from the state may dilute our witness and devalue the gospel we claim to represent.