11 May 2004

Baptists and church-state issues

If the Southern Baptist Convention does indeed adopt a resolution in favour of christian education, it could also portend a departure from the usual Baptist affirmation of a particular understanding of church-state separation. Baptists, at least in the US, have generally claimed to favour something approaching Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state. This is often taken to imply, among other things, a pro-choice position on abortion and an opposition to government financial support for independent schools, as seen in the American Baptist Policy Statement on Church and State of the American Baptist Churches. A much briefer "Affirmation of Our Faith" by the Baptist General Conference, a small body with Swedish origins, similarly claims that "Church and State must be kept separate as having different functions, each fulfilling its duties free from dictation or patronage of the other," although it refrains from drawing any specific implications.

The Southern Baptist Convention appears to have modified this somewhat rigid understanding of church-state separation. According to its website,
We stand for a free church in a free state. Neither one should control the affairs of the other. We support the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, with its "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses.

We do, of course, acknowledge the legitimate interplay of these two spheres. For example, it is appropriate for the state to enact and enforce fire codes for the church nurseries. It is also appropriate for ministers to offer prayer at civic functions. Neither the Constitution nor Baptist tradition would build a wall of separation against such practices as these.

The second paragraph would appear to lean very slightly towards what might be labelled a more accommodationist approach to church-state relations -- one which would have government treating the various religious communities and their activities in an even-handed, equitable fashion. This could open the door to the ecclesiastical acceptance of a legitimate government role in recognizing and supporting financially the prior rights of parents to educate their own children. If so, it would mark something of a watershed in the larger Baptist communion.

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