Written by Don Byrd

Why do Baptists care so much about supporting the religious liberty of non-Baptists? Why do we support the separation of church and state? When I tell people about this blog and about the work of the Baptist Joint Committee, this is a common response, even if just written on their faces. 

If you have the same question, you may be interested in a piece I wrote a while back, recently published by the new Journal of Interfaith Arkansas. “Soul Freedom: A Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty” tries to explain how the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause work in tandem to principles important to Baptist heritage. As I point out, the Baptist belief in both ideas as essential to the vitality of faith traces back to Roger Williams.

Here is an excerpt:

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, hundreds of Baptist churches sprouted across America. While most colonies supported in some fashion an established state religion, Baptists championed separation as the only government stance that would allow voluntary faith to flourish. So long as the state picks sides in matters of faith, Baptists warned, the claim to God-given, individual soul freedom is undermined.

That fundamentally Baptist perspective on religious liberty explains why Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland pressed James Madison so fiercely to secure a Bill of Rights that included a guarantee of religious freedom. It also explains why the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, oppressed under the state’s established Congregational church, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to encourage his continued support for rights of conscience.  (Jefferson famously replied in 1802 with a letter expressing his hope that the “wall of separation between church and state” built by the First Amendment’s religion clauses would be an idea that “might germinate and become rooted in . . . political tenets.”)

Unfortunately, the piece goes on to note, the Establishment Clause has been weakened in recent years, as has the commitment of many religious liberty advocates including Baptists to support it. The tradition of Baptist thought, however, demonstrates that religious liberty of all is best served when the government stays out of matters of religion. That means declining to be a hurdle to religious exercise, but it also means declining to promote it either.

If you’re interested, read the whole thing.