Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Baptists and Freedom

With the 4th of July holiday weekend rapidly approaching, many ministers in the United States (especially those not following the lectionary) are busily preparing sermons on the theme of freedom. If they're Baptists, there's a good chance they're making connections between biblical texts like Galatians 5:1-5, the freedom of religion that belongs to the American experiment in democracy, and the Baptist heritage of advocacy for religious liberty. And well they should, for the intertwining of these strands has been important to the identity of Baptists in this context in a way that arguably has played a role in shaping a distinctively American approach to the safeguarding of religious liberty as a civil right. I've preached such a sermon now and then myself. A decade ago the Baptist History and Heritage Society announced a Baptist Heritage Preaching Contest, and somehow my submitted sermon "Standing Firm for Freedom" won first prize. I still preach the essence of that sermon on occasion (but perhaps without such a strong, unnuanced parallel between freedom as a divine attribute and freedom as an expression of the imago dei).

The best historical account of the relation of Baptist concepts of freedom to the American experiment in democracy that I've read to date is a newly published book by Lee Canipe, pastor of Murfreesboro Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, North Carolina and an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Chowan University. Canipe's book A Baptist Democracy: Separating God from Caesar in the Land of the Free (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011) traces the transformation of earlier English Baptist emphases on freedom into the linkages between Baptist ecclesiological principles and American democracy exemplified by the work of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928), and George W. Truett (1867-1944).

In the introduction, Canipe summarizes one approach many Baptists in the United States have taken to articulating the relation of freedom to Baptist identity: "The freedom of autonomous, individual believers to take personal responsibility for their spiritual welfare...had always been the defining characteristic of the Baptist tradition and it remained a normative conviction for all true Baptists" (p. 4). After four chapters that provide a critical and nuanced treatment of the role earlier expressions of that understanding of Baptist identity played in Baptist arguments for American democracy, Canipe concludes that this way of putting it is "partly correct." He continues:

This understanding of freedom has indeed been the traditional Baptist point of view since the days of John Leland, when Baptists in the young American republic enthusiastically embraced the political ideals of Jefferson and Madison and proudly called them their own. It is wrong, however, to argue that this individualistic understanding of freedom--derived from John Locke and his fellow philosophers in the age of Enlightenment--reflects a theological tradition that stretches back to the earliest Baptists in seventeenth-century England. While John Smyth and Thomas Helwys did, undoubtedly, have a passion for freedom, they understood this freedom to be a gift of God through the grace of Jesus Christ. Specifically, they believed the freedom of a Christian to be the freedom not to sin--the freedom, in other words, to obey God rather than the corrupted (and corrupting) instincts of a fallen human nature. The very idea that the freedom of a Christian was somehow intrinsic to human nature would have struck these early Baptists as a theological impossibility--or, as Helwys once put it, a "most damnable heresy." Simply put, seventeenth-century English Baptists did not understand Christian freedom in the same way as their moderate Baptist descendants do four hundred years later (p. 173).

I heartily commend A Baptist Democracy as stimulating summer reading (or anytime reading) for anyone interested in Baptists and/or the commitments of American democracy to religious liberty.

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