Truth with the Bark on It: The Wit and Wisdom of James Dunn

The following quotes are from James M. Dunn, who served as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty from 1981-1999. From the profound to the facetious, Dunn had an uncanny ability to turn a phrase. Dunn passed away July 4, 2015. Click here to learn more about his life and legacy


CBF 10 Dunn side view JVI’m a Texas-bred, Spirit-led, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist. That’s neither a boast nor a whine, just an explanation of ‘where I’m coming from’ as the kids say.
–Address to American Baptist Churches, 1995

Religious freedom marks off the playing field, establishes the marketplace, provides the context in which all faiths may offer their own understanding of the ultimate good news from heaven to humankind.
Reflections, May 1987

Religious freedom and church-state separation are a package deal.
Reflections, June 1, 1999

When government claims to aid all religions, it never fails to play favorites.
Reflections, October 1985

The trouble with a theocracy is everyone wants to be Theo!
–A favorite classroom saying of James Dunn

Government often favors religion when it should leave it alone. Churches appeal for state assistance without counting the cost. When government meddles in religion it always has the touch of mud.
— “The Baptist Vision of Religious Liberty”

Freedom is not absolute. No one is ‘free as a bird.’ Only a bird is free as a bird. We are not free to deny basic freedoms to others. When anyone’s freedom is denied, everyone’s freedom is endangered. We are not free without responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are like two sides of a coin, inseparable. No matter how thin it is sliced, the coin of responsible freedom still has two sides. God made us able to respond, response able, responsible, and if responsible, free.
–Linfield College Commencement, May 30, 1999

Like breathing in and breathing out, freedom and responsibility are two parts of one process.
Reflections, November/December 1984

The best thing government can do for religion is to leave it alone.
Reflections, October 1983

We are seeing in the United States today a deliberate attempt to collapse the distinction between mixing politics and religion (which is inevitable) and merging Church and State (which is inexcusable).
Reflections, October 1984

You betcha boots. As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in schools.
Reflections, February 1994

You don’t speak for Baptists. You only speak to Baptists.
–Receiving the Associated Baptist Press Religious Freedom Award, September 1999

Soul freedom is the biblical and theological starting point and religious liberty naturally follows. If we all, in some serious way, replicate God, religious liberty is a moral and social inevitability.
In Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty, 1997

No pastor or priest, no doctrine or disciple, no book or belief, no church or creed comes between the individual and God.
What Are We Stewards Of? 1993

It’s a perilous calling to insist that the Bible means exactly what it says (rather than what it means).
Reflections, October 1981

Jesus would have liked Mexican food, jalapenos, Blue Bell ice cream, and boiling hot chicory coffee. ‘Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.’ (Rev. 3:15-16).
Reflections, April 1990

I’m the kind of evangelical who thinks ‘born-again Christian’ is a redundancy. Christians are born again.
–American Jewish Committee Speech, 1995

Dance is an honest image of active expression of happiness that is yours. You know, like Snoopy, with feet flying. You know how King David felt when he ‘danced before the Lord with all his might.’ (II Samuel 6:14) Hoorah! Hallelujah! Yes! But keep your clothes on.
–Samford University Baccalaureate, May 1995

Ignorance is bondage, and there is enough to go around. We are flooded with information but starving for knowledge.
Americans have an information fetish despite the fact that info is making no one smarter or a better human being. The more data we absorb, the dumber and meaner we get. The simple explanation is that the information glut allows no time for reflection. Information is useless without time in which to think about what it means. We know everything but understand nothing. We need to know truth, not just facts.
–Linfield College Commencement, May 30, 1999

Dunn wit and wisdom pull quote2When you look for answers remember to faith on, risk on, even fumble on without waiting. We are free to fail. We are not free to fail to try.
–Linfield College Commencement, May 30, 1999

Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other.
Reflections, June 1982


It is dangerous to elevate political platforms to the level of biblical ethics. It is easy for us sinful mortals to confuse the temporary with the permanent.
Religion and Politics, 1994

Christians should be involved in politics, but with Christian goals, methods, attitudes and preparation. We should do our homework, speak out in a Christian tone of voice and be prepared to live with the consequences of joining the debate.
Religion and Politics, 1994

‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ are twins threats to Christian citizenship. There is no place in an incarnational living out of the Christ-life for non-involvement. Not to decide is to decide. If we fail to alarm anyone morally we remain morally asleep ourselves. If we stay out of politics we align ourselves with the forces of evil. If we fail to challenge the status quo we are saying 1) we accept things as they are, or  2) our God is powerless and we are without hope.
Reflections, March 1985

Baptists have seen plenty of leap-year religion from public servants. Even the uncynical see the spasms of spirituality that are synchronized with election years.
Reflections, September 1986

Since lobbying is simply ‘attempting to influence legislation,’ every Christian should be a lobbyist.
Reflections, December 1997

Theocracy is organized arrogance.

What Are We Stewards Of? 1993

Libel by labeling is a common crime these days.
Reflections, May 1985

Churches faithful to the Gospel cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. Silence is sin.
Reflections, September 1986

Stubbornness may be the most needed ‘gift of the Spirit.’
–Receiving the Associated Baptist Press Religious Freedom Award, September 1999

Dear Mr. Vice President. I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, you’ve ripped your britches.
–Dunn to Vice President Al Gore when Gore backed federal funding for faith-based groups during his 2000 presidential campaign

It is despicable demagoguery for the President to play petty politics with prayer. He knows that the Supreme Court has never banned prayer in schools. It can’t. Real prayer is always free.
–Dunn statement on May 6, 1982, responding to President Ronald Reagan’s call for a constitutional amendment to permit public school-sponsored prayer