Shurden gives sobering warning on state of religious freedom at 2006 luncheon

View PDF of speech

By Robert Marus, Associated Baptist Press
June 23, 2006
ATLANTA, GA – Warning “it can happen here,” Baptist historian Walter Shurden told religious liberty advocates June 23 that the principle of religious freedom is threatened as never before in American history.

“But many say, ‘It can’t happen here,'” Shurden said, speaking to many veterans of the 27-year-old fundamentalist takeover that pushed moderates out of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The last time I heard that I was in a hotel lobby in Houston, Texas, in 1979.”

Shurden is director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He addressed about 550 supporters of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty at a luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Atlanta.

During the lunch, Shurden described a sermon at the 1992 general assembly delivered by the late Samuel Proctor, a legendary Baptist theologian and pastor. In it, Proctor listed the litany of cultural achievements that Germany produced between the Reformation and the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s.

“Germany was no hick backcountry. Germany was the theological home of Luther and Schleiermacher. Germany was the intellectual center of many of the great philosophers,” Shurder said, quoting Proctor. “And then [Proctor] kept ticking off names of all the great minds and large souls that shaped modern Germany.”

“And I think I will never forget … he turned to the side and he raised his hands in the air, he bent his knees, and he came down and he said, ‘And along came a paper hanger!'” Shurden quoted Proctor as saying – a reference to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Shurden noted that one reason Nazism was able to triumph in Germany was because the church largely acquiesced to it – and many, in fact, began to merge nationalistic and racist teachings with Christianity, forming a movement called the German Christians.

“All pathos and all the passion fell on the first word rather than the second word,” Shurden said. “They were Germans who happened to be Christians, rather than Christians who happened to be Germans, and they proudly flung the swastika across Christ’s altar.”

However, Shurden warned: “They were people like us. We need not demonize them; they were people like us.”

With the caveat that he does not believe any kid of Nazi-like totalitarian regime is imminent in the United States, Shurden nonetheless warned that Americans in general and Baptists in particular should not grow complacent about their freedom.

“I am suggesting … that there are American Christians for whom the adjective is more important than the noun,” he said. “I am suggesting that some Christian churches in our country have become political temples and that some clergy have embraced willingly the title of ‘patriot pastors.’ I am suggesting that theocrats have an eye on the machinery of the national and state governments, and they make no apology for it.”

Shurden gave examples of three reasons why “it can happen here,” as he put it: Because of “religious right-wing militancy,” “sincere religious ideologues” and “ignorance of our history.”

“It can happen here because of Generation Joshua,” he said. The name denotes “an effort by Michael Farris – founder of Patrick Henry College – to turn a generation of home-schools students into foot soldiers to gain political power in order to subsume everything … under their right-wing interpretation of the Christian faith,” Shurden said.

The school, in Purcellville, Va., was founded to teach the children of home-schooled, conservative evangelical Christians and raise them to become involved in public policy while advocating a “Christian worldview.”

Shurden also noted that “by 2004 – two years ago – 42 of the 100 senators of the United States were given a scorecard of 100 percent by the Christian Coalition,” he said. “It can happen here because there are religious ideologues rampant in our country, and they mean business. They are sincere.”

He further said that ignorance of American and Baptist history threatens future generations’ respect for religious freedom. Shurden referred to a Knight Foundation study that surveyed a large number of U.S. high school students on their views of civil liberties.

“One in three high-school students in this republic say that the First Amendment of the United States goes too far in the rights that it guarantees you as a citizen,” he said. “Now that last sentence ought to be absolutely horrendous to your ears.”

Shurden said the survey also found that one half of students thought newspapers should not be allowed to print whatever they want without first gaining government approval.

“This is America’s tomorrow speaking, and one third of them want the freedoms of the First Amendment of the Constitution curbed, and one half of them want the government to approve of stories in the newspaper you read.”

Shurden said that he has noticed a significant difference in his 50-plus years in ministry in the ways that most Baptist congregations react to a sermon on religious freedom and separation of church and state. Fifty years ago, he said, the average Baptist congregation would yawn at such an old-hat topic.

Today, Shurden said, when a Baptist preacher talks about “authentic separation of church and state” from the pulpit, “people get uneasy” and an “electricity” spreads around the sanctuary.

But, Shurden continued, if a minister climbs in the pulpit and preaches “that the First Amendment has been misinterpreted and carried too far; and if you preach that all religious groups in this country have religious freedom, but that Christianity stands in a privileged religious position because of our history; and if you preach that the country is going to hell in a handbasket because the judiciary will not acknowledge our Christian symbols; and if you preach that there is a carefully planned ‘war on Christians’ in our country; and if you preach that our country has always been a Christian country and is losing its moorings … if that’s what you preach … then sanctuary electricity becomes sanctuary applause.

“It can happen here, because Baptists, of all God’s people, have lost our way on separation of church and state,” he said. “And that, my friends, is why the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is so essential to our life today.”

After his speech, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker presented Shurden the organization’s J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award.

The luncheon serves as the annual meeting of the Religious Liberty Council, the organization of individuals that donate to the BJC. The group elected two new co-chairpersons: Hal Bass, a professor at Ouachita Baptist University and member of First Baptist Church in Arkadelphia, Ark.; and Cynthia Holmes, a St. Louis attorney and member of Overland Baptist Church in Overland, Mo. They replace outgoing co-chairpersons Sharon Felton and Reggie McDonough.

Members also elected Henry Green, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md., as RLC secretary.


View more information on previous luncheons