Moral Monday thoughts on Isaac Backus

Baptists understand civil disobedience. It's part of their history.

By Andrew Barnhill

Hundreds of clergy and laity from throughout North Carolina have made their way to Raleigh this summer for a series of protests called Moral Mondays.

Organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, the crowd of up to several hundred has attempted to highlight attacks on the middle and lower class found in such policies as voter identification, Medicaid refusal and voting restrictions for college students. The protests strike a nod to a more familiar set of protests from North Carolina’s past.

In February of 1960, four college students from North Carolina A&T walked to the Greensboro Woolworth’s and were refused service at the lunch counter. They returned the next day.

Several months later, demonstrations spread to cities throughout the southern United States. Civil disobedience in the form of nonviolent resistance became one of the most effective tools of the civil rights movement.

Baptists understand civil disobedience. But as a Baptist engaged in the work of electoral politics, I am also drawn to the story of Isaac Backus.

Backus launched his life as a Baptist by planting a church in Middleborough, Mass. When the colonial government forced him to continue paying his tax to his Congregational parish, Backus refused; he was sent to jail.

Arrested again for his views on baptism, Backus wrote his famous “Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty.” His insistent views on religious liberty led him to become a delegate to the First Continental Congress and later to the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution in 1788.

Backus understood the key balance between civil disobedience and direct political engagement. While he was willing to make a statement to the governing authorities by going to jail, he was also willing to participate in the regular task of legislating.

As I watch the growing protests at the General Assembly, this Baptist also looks around for those who are willing to challenge the status quo inside the legislature itself. As rich as our tradition of civil disobedience, our commitment to religious liberty also compels direct action. Baptists like Jimmy Carter understand this.

In Free Church, Free State, Nigel Wright wrote that while Baptists view the church as a gathered community seeking to model Christ to the nations, Baptists scattered throughout the world, including in elected office, are to “bring to bear a steady and invisible influence upon it, like salt.”

For the Baptist, political participation must be performed with the steady and invisible leadership that recognizes one key notion -- to have a free church, one must also have a free state.

As pressures at legislatures in Texas and North Carolina continue throughout the summer, Baptists would do well to remember Backus. Navigating the life of American politics as a Baptist is no easy task. But it is an important one. At a Massachusetts convention of 1788, Isaac Backus understood that.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.