I have recently had a couple of interactions with some Southern Baptist clergymen in which they expressed hostility to the concept of secular government. This is probably no surprise, I realize. It has been more than a few years since the Southern Baptists joined their right-wing Christian confederates in claiming that America should be a “Christian nation” and bemoaning the evils of “Secular Humanism.”
It is absurd for them to take this position, as members of the movement that started the idea of secular government, at least in the English-speaking world. But what struck me as sad was that they didn’t seem to realize the absurdity. They were unaware of their own Baptist heritage. The lesson is that Baptist churches should make secular government part of the Sunday School curriculum.
My office oversees the expenditure of certain Federal funds to local nonprofit agencies. Recently we had to suspend funding to a Baptist-affiliated group because it was taking Federal funding for a program that was spreading the gospel message to the clients it was assisting. The Baptist Director of the nonprofit complained that it was unfair for them to lose their taxpayer funding if they used it to teach the gospel, claiming that we were forcing them to adopt the religion of “secular humanism.”
I was describing this situation to an acquaintance of mine who is a pastor and holds a high office in the Southern Baptist Convention. I concluded by saying “its pretty sad to see that from the movement of Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams.” The Southern Baptist pastor responded by shaking his head and saying “No. People always claim the founding fathers were a bunch of atheists, but really the founding fathers wanted this to be a Christian nation.” At first I thought he didn’t hear me. I said “No, not the founding fathers. Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams.” He just stared at me. I realized that he has no idea who Thomas Helwys or Rogers Williams were.
Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America, and he also founded the first English-speaking secular government: the colony of Rhode Island. He was following the lead of the pastors of the very first English Baptist congregation, including Thomas Helwys, who had already written in favor of separating Church from State. The concept of religious liberty, of government not interfering in religion, is probably the most prominent contribution that the Baptist movement has made to human history.
History is not everyone’s favorite topic. I would not expect the average person on the street to know about Roger Williams, but I was appalled that a member of the senior leadership of the largest Baptist association did not know about him.
But why should he? In order for Baptists to be aware of their long history of supporting religious liberty, they have to learn about it from somewhere. They won’t just absorb it via osmosis. Where will they learn it? Did you learn about the Baptist tradition of religious liberty in Sunday School? Are Baptist kids today taught in church about John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams?
We Baptists should be proud of the role our movement played in freeing our society from the yoke of religious theocracy.”If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man” wrote Thomas Helwys. This contribution of the early Baptists, the separation of church and state, is under attack by those who insist that government should promote Christianity. The next generation of Baptists should continue to defend secular government against its critics…
…but they won’t know they should unless someone teaches them about it.