Against Strict Separationism: The Viability of a (Civilly) Christian State in Baptist Perspective

Introduction

Christian nationalism’s abrupt entrance into modern discourse has summoned a generous host of critics, and some in my own Baptist tribe have taken an interest in its relevance. Consequently, many have been actively considering what we can affirm and what we must deny as Baptists regarding the relationship between church and state. My endeavor in this essay is to offer a Baptist perspective on the theological viability of having a state that is at the very least self-consciously Christian in its governance.[1] I believe Baptist political theology can maintain the role of civil magistrates to advance the common good and uphold Christianity’s preeminence in the flourishing of society while simultaneously preserving jurisdictional church-state separation. Thus, what I am proposing is less a singularly Baptist vision and instead one that, in my view, can be argued in accordance with shared principles of historic Protestant and American legal thought and simultaneously remain consistent with a more traditional Baptist conception of soul liberty.

To this end, I seek to emphasize the relevant commentary of Isaac Backus (1724–1806) in particular, though not to the exclusion of other leaders of the Baptist story in America, such as John Leland (1754–1841). I argue that we can consider the preferability of a civil recognition of Christianity’s necessity for proper government by the present American democratic system without compromising classical Baptist convictions. By civil recognition, I mean publicly identifying our institutions and jurisprudence as essentially Christian in the spirit of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779–1845), that “Christianity is indispensable to the true interests & solid foundations of all free governments.”[2] This civil recognition is distinguished from a magisterial enforcement as prescribed by most traditional Reformed political thought that views the state as taking an active part in the mission of the church, such as in punishing heresy and non-Christian religions as threats to the common good. By no means do I expect any government to be confessionalized and establish a particular variety of Christianity as the only true religion. I am only offering a proposal for modern political liberalism to possess greater intellectual honesty in America, one that Baptists can viably agree to without abandoning any of our most basic principles.

Ordered Liberty

In 1773, Backus offered the following definition of liberty:

The true liberty of man is, to know, obey and enjoy his Creator, and to do all the good unto, and enjoy all the happiness with and in his fellow-creatures that he is capable of; in order to which the law of love was written on his heart, which carries in its nature union and benevolence to being in general, and to each being in particular, according to its nature and excellency, and to its relation and connexion to and with the supreme Being, and ourselves.[3]

As I have argued elsewhere, the historic conception of soul liberty within Baptist thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should not be taken as an unmitigated positive freedom but as an ordered liberty that recognizes the ultimate sanctity of conscience before God yet not apart from its proper duties incumbent upon all of his image-bearers. Mark Noll emphasizes that Backus and other Baptists in the Founding period prioritized liberty of conscience as having “less to do with the fear of economic or political slavery than with religious, moral, and spiritual freedom,” making “true, regenerate freedom” of Christians their fulcrum.[4] Such an ordered understanding is represented by Backus in this definition, accentuating the soul’s freedom to do as it ought according to God’s proper design and moral law.

One issue in Baptist thought is how liberty should exist in proper relation to civil law. According to Nathan Hatch, Leland articulated a “liberal individualism” whose “legacy is an exaggerated opposition to official Christianity.”[5] Leland’s emphasis upon the individual and freedom of conscience flowed from his Jeffersonian sentiments that the realm of civil government “has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of the mathematicks.”[6] Religious establishments, seeking to speak on the church’s behalf, undermine true religion by artificially manipulating men’s hearts in a given spiritual direction. As he averred, “It is error, and error alone, that needs human support; and whenever men fly to the law or sword to protect their system of religion, and force it upon others, it is evident that they have something in their system that will not bear the light, and stand upon the basis of truth.”[7] True liberty, from Leland’s perspective, is total liberty from the government’s involvement in the religious life of the people.

One can find similar sentiments in the thought of those such as Tertullian (155–220) and Lactantius (c. 250–325), who argued against any sort of state enforcement of religion.[8] George W. Truett (1867–1944) concurred, declaring in a sermon preached on the steps outside of the U.S. Capitol on May 16, 1920, that “Christ’s religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source, and to the degree that it is thus supported is a millstone hanged about its neck.”[9] The kingdom of Christ was to be kept free from the clutches of Caesar; taxes, not souls, were under its care and consideration.

Yet Backus himself by no means abided by a strict separationism that would seek, in the reckoning of Philip Hamburger, a “segregation of church and state.”[10] According to William G. McLoughlin, Backus was “far from having a clear-cut position on the precise line to be drawn between church and state.” He supported religious tests for office, the printing of Bibles by the government, and laws enforcing the Sabbath.[11] Elsewhere Backus stated that “there may and ought to be a sweet harmony” shared by the church and civil government in their respective endeavors, not a fundamental disunity.[12] At the very least, Backus envisioned a more positive role for government concerning true religion, even if not quite a fully “magisterial” one. Since he believed that “civil rulers ought to be men fearing God” to administer true justice,” at issue was not the extent to which the government itself identified as Christian but whether it should actively assist the church in judging who was as the fathers of Puritan New England had demanded.[13]

A supposedly decisive consensus on a “Baptist” view of the exact degree of intimacy in the relationship between church and state among those such as Backus and Leland is elusive. Certainly, we should not attempt to deny contextual contingencies for such figures: advocating for a religious test for office as Backus did reflects a time when few envisioned the possibility of a non-Christian majority anywhere in the West, and Leland’s idealism concerning Jeffersonian America flows from the fact that “ardent democracy did not yet necessarily mean innovative theology” in what was then a still professedly Christian country.[14] But as Obbie Tyler Todd has recently put forward, from the perspective of the early republic in America, “It is doubtful that the majority of Baptists, including the Danbury Association, ever intended to build a ‘wall’ between church and state,” certainly so far as many would understand it today.[15] This admission is not a judgment on the worthiness of one particular view over and against the others; taking note of it only asks Baptists to seek resolution about what we must absolutely be against and a greater openness to all that we can be for in our political theology.[16] As rational creatures, human beings should seek to rightly order themselves toward their proper ends, though the fall frustrates them in this endeavor. Thus, to best honor conscience’s rights is first to estimate it accurately, and having a civil backbone of Christian principles empowers its proper respect and regulation.

The Common Good

Brad Littlejohn argues that a modern Christian state would extol Christianity while “encouraging independent religious denominations to engage in friendly competition” without civilly codifying its exact expression.[17] For our purposes, there could be an acknowledgment of Christianity in a purely civil sense from a Baptist perspective on this point; in the spirit of both the Westminster and Second London Confessions, maintaining that “God alone is the Lord of conscience” would encourage the state to point men to their fitting religious end rather than away from it. To abide by a theistic fundament for a modern state is to maintain the final accountability to God of any earthly government. Regarding Romans 13:4, John Gill (1697–1771) surmises that “[The magistrate] is a minister of God’s appointing and commissioning, that acts under him, and for him, is a kind of a vicegerent of his, and in some, sense represents him.” Citing David Pareus (1548–1622), he concludes that magistrates exist for “natural, moral, civil, and spiritual” good.[18] It follows that a government most acutely aware of its viceregency would best fulfill its penultimate role in the created order. 

A pitfall in modern American Baptist thought on church and state is overstating the contributions of Roger Williams (1603–1683) to a “Baptist political theology.” Much has been rightly made of Williams’ early apologetics for soul liberty in America against the draconian intolerance of Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. His defense of conscience should neither be ignored nor denied its full worth in the flowering of toleration in the American Revolution. Nevertheless, his radical disjunction between the church and secular society presents significant problems for constructing a sustainable Protestant political theology. His claim that the “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world” was to remain sacrosanct didn’t even work out for his colony of Rhode Island.[19] As documented by Cory Higdon, the story of Williams’ early experiment in religious liberty at Rhode Island was far from idyllic.[20] The Baptist temptation is to project the ideal described by Williams’ separation of church and state as normative for all Baptist political engagement. However, Hamburger notes that despite Williams’ appropriation of Baptist arguments for the separation of church and state, his stringent Separatism meant that his reframing “transcended the religious liberty Baptists had demanded and hinted how social specialization was secularizing human life, stripping religion of much of its worldly significance.”[21] In other words, the separation of church and state, according to Williams’ separatism, meant much more than keeping the garden safe from the wilderness and undermined the “sweet harmony” someone like Backus had in mind. As Hamburger goes on to say, although “Williams desired religious liberty of a sort enunciated by Baptists,” Baptists who applauded him for his opposition to religious establishments “said nothing about his ideas concerning…the separation of the church from the world.”[22]

While other Baptists at the time more fully agreed with Williams’ separatism, the fact that others were not so inclined and still opposed a persecutory church-state union demonstrates the greater valence available to American Baptists on such matters. Backus acknowledged that “Many in the State of Rhode-Island, bolster themselves up in an irreligious way, by the stories they have heard of the injustice and cruelty which the Massachusetts and Connecticuts did to their fathers, under a religious mask.”[23] Nevertheless, he made it clear that his opposition to religious establishment pertained to the state enforcing a given denomination and requiring taxation to support its ministers, not a civil recognition of Christianity to any extent.[24] Praising Williams as the “chief instrument of saving all the English then in New-England from ruin” in defending soul liberty, Backus nevertheless was opposed to his denuding civil affairs of religion that would become increasingly problematic in the colony he founded.[25]

Not wanting to devolve into the rank nominalism that Christendom once enshrined throughout Europe, Baptists, in particular, have been keenly aware of how religious establishments serve as active seedbeds for false converts under the delusion of salvation in a purely professed faith alone. A Baptist would seemingly maintain this historic conception of the church-state relationship by adopting Williams’ framework at face value. Nevertheless, wanting a church-state harmony for greater gospel proclamation can still be considered institutionally ideal. Encouraging a cultural milieu favorable toward Christianity can be promoted alongside a state’s protection of the rights of conscience as well as the shaping of the conscience toward the ends of man it seeks to uphold in its moral ecology.[26] Nevertheless, only the church, by means of the Holy Spirit, can see conversion actualized in fulfilling its singular task of proclaiming the gospel. A Baptist’s desire for saving faith can approve of civil recognition of Christianity with regard to democracy as much as he must readily affirm the unchanged call of the church in any age, commissioning the country he calls his passing home to support the passage of more of his fellow citizens into that eternal home by helping to keep their earthly affections in right order.

Story offers exceptionally helpful commentary on this front. He posited that “government can not long exist without an alliance with religion to some extent,” yet he also “distinguish[ed]…between the Establishment of a particular sect, as the Religion of the State, & the Establishment of Christianity itself, without any preference of any particular form of it.” This latter proposal, eminently compatible with the civil recognition of Christianity as being argued in this essay, presupposes that American democracy cannot possibly “abolish Christianity as part of the antecedent Law of the Land” without undoing the heart of its republicanism.[27] In other words, a governmental refusal to publicly acknowledge Christianity’s unavoidable and inextricable role in shaping American democracy in a legislatively tangible manner is both deceitful and dangerous. Asking for such intellectual and political honesty in the public square is, therefore, for the betterment of all. As acknowledged by Story, civil recognition by the state of Christian axioms for justice and the common good still fully respects freedom of religion. Furthermore, acknowledging Christianity in this way helps it to be a fitting complement to American civil religion. Placing this within a Baptist perspective, a civil recognition of Christianity as framed by Story does not consist of any church-state partnership or religious establishment. Instead, it would robustly maintain the rights of conscience as truly precious to God as the one who “is the only worthy object of all religious worship” through a governmental awareness of His sovereignty that ensures those consciences won’t be left deformed.[28] By restraining civil religion from deifying the nation itself, affirming Christianity in this vein keeps the American experiment from facing an epitaph of “Nasty. Brutish. Short.”

The Freedom of the Church

I heartily agree with Andrew Walker as a fellow Baptist in endorsing a “free-church tradition” which “insists that a church should be composed only of those who are self-consciously Christian.” To go a step further, the defense of the freedom of the church is likely to be more certain when under a state that respects proper ecclesial liberties because of divinely-prescripted obligation. For Baptists who maintain that a call to “public religion” is coercive and infringes upon the church’s distinctive work in advancing the gospel, it is once again pertinent to recognize that a society acknowledging the Christian religion as an active force for good, as America broadly did at its founding, is to the betterment, not the detriment, of the public perception of churches as worthy of their attention.

But it appears that longing for the supposed authenticity of the catacombs now trumps any fruits of Christendom. As Craig Carter has recently argued, liberal democracy itself is held captive to Christian first principles. The West’s ability to maintain thriving republics was encouraged by Christendom’s predominance in the first place. A renewed conception of the natural law in our politics might be sufficient to reinvigorate the moral ecology of our civilization. Still, the plausibility structure for such was always most reliably sustained by a positive sense of distinctly Christian virtue, thereby making natural law more sustainable in building a legislative consensus. Contending for a secular Western moral order with a gleaming liberal optimism seems to miss where such an eschatology has taken us when it comes to the present “blessings” of an unmoored democracy.

A fitting Baptist aversion to pure moralism as opposed to genuine conversion to Christ seems to motivate a rejection of any of Christendom’s potential successes in shaping the Western social imagination. Stanley Hauerwas’ work on these matters proposes that, on balance, the decline of “Christendom” is ideal for the American church since it can no longer operate on the pretenses of cultural Christianity for support in carrying out its redemptive mission.[29] The Constantinian Revolution, in such a view, normativized false belief; only in preserving a secularized state will men genuinely come to Christ rather than cling to “Mayberry” for salvation. But although Mayberry doesn’t save, it might give you a better chance of knowing Who does. Put simply: it is easiest to connect the dots when they are still there. Returning to Backus once more: “Rulers, ministers and people, ought to improve all their influence, in their several stations, to promote and support true religion by gospel means and methods…it surely is of infinite importance, that every lover of our dear country, be in earnest to have it saved from such iniquity, and from such ruin.”[30] The state, rather than displacing religion entirely from its affairs, can promote gospel proclamation by encouraging the mission of the church throughout the land. In this sense, the state is a respecting and promotive, not persecuting and coercive, state so far as it concerns religion.

Only when the church remains necessary to the social imagination of the West can it reliably expect her freedoms to stay intact. The local churches that Baptists everywhere cherish find greater security with a government that sees them as fundamental to its organizing principles, not potential threats.

Conclusion

So, should Baptists be “Christian nationalists” in any sense? Insofar as one defines it as a magisterial Christianizing of society through strict enforcement of sectarian theological orthodoxy under the punitive threat of persecution, I would say no. Yet this essay seeks to calm the waters for Baptists who might confuse a governmental recognition of Christianity’s ethical and political ideals with a persecuting “nursing father” who disregards dissenting consciences in favor of establishmentarian coercion. By seeking to honor the viability of having a civilly Christian state for the sake of the common good, this model intends to empower rather than hinder the church’s mission.

Baptists, in our prioritization of regenerate church membership and God’s final ownership of the conscience, must strive to allow for the freedom of the church to proclaim the gospel and salt and leaven the culture with the holistic vision for human flourishing that the Christian faith offers. However, fulfilling that mission works best under a state that respects and encourages ecclesial liberty. A state that civilly affirms the importance of Christianity can maintain the centrality of the church for the good of society while also knowing the proper temporal jurisdiction of the state. Instead of mixing the “garden” with the “wilderness,” this framing affirms their respective limits to their mutual benefit, reminding all citizens, regenerate and unregenerate alike, of the life force of their democracy. Though debates over what constitutes a fitting Baptist political theology won’t abate any time soon, knowing that the doorway of our tradition doesn’t lead to only one destination on such matters is a good start.


Editor’s Note: The London Lyceum seeks to publish original essays for the purpose of inspiring thinking. Therefore, not all essays and/or authors will hold to our confessional commitments. But as with all our work, we publish a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.


[1] I intend here the definition of “Christian” as simply that which acknowledges the value system of Christianity as foundational to its moral and legal orientation. Jonathan Leeman has vigorously contested against such terminology, stating that calling anything except the church itself Christian “ties Christ’s name to a geo-political space and people” instead of the redeemed collective of his body. See Jonathan Leeman, “‘Christian Nationalism’ Misrepresents Jesus, So We Should Reject It.” From 9Marks. Published on October 31, 2022. Accessed on May 5, 2023. https://www.9marks.org/article/christian-nationalism-as-influence-or-identity/. However, since the American moral imagination is fundamentally Christian in any identifiable sense, I believe it is valid to use such terminology when it does not seek to identify a nation as Christian but simply democratic government’s Judeo-Christian presuppositions.

[2] Joseph Story, “Letter from Joseph Story to Jasper Adams,” in The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding, ed. by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 2009), 611-12.

[3] Isaac Backus, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty (1773),” in The Sacred Rights of Conscience, 204–211.

[4] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 151.

[5] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 100–01.

[6] John Leland, The rights of conscience inalienable, and therefore religious opinions not cognizable by law: or, The high-flying church-man, stript of his legal robe, appears a Yaho (New London, CT: T. Green & Son, 1791) 13. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N18125.0001.001

[7] Leland, The rights of conscience inalienable, 15.

[8] See Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

[9] George W. Truett, “Baptists and Religious Liberty.” U. S. Capitol Building, May 16, 1920; Washington, D.C. Accessed on May 5, 2023. https://bjconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Baptists-and-Religious-Liberty.pdf

[10] Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 20.

[11] William G. McLoughlin, “Isaac Backus and the Separation of Church and State in America.” The American Historical Review 73, no. 5 (1968): 1392–1413. https://doi.org/10.2307/1851375. McGloughlin mentions Elder Thomas Baldwin (1753–1826) in Boston who succeeded Backus as the leading spokesman for Baptists in Massachusetts after his death as one who believed that “persons who belonged to no church or congregation should be taxed to support the parish church.” See McGloughlin, 1410n47.

[12] Isaac Backus, A Fish caught in his own net. An examination of nine sermons, from Matt. 16. 18. published last year, by Mr Joseph Fish of Stonington (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1768), 23. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N08465.0001.001

[13] Ibid.

[14] Noll, America’s God, 153.

[15] Obbie Tyler Todd, “Did All Baptists Want a Wall?: Early Postures Toward Religious Liberty.” From Desiring God. Published on April 8, 2023. Accessed on May 8, 2023. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/did-all-baptists-want-a-wall

[16] For example, John Gill’s view of fully endorsing the first table of the law seems like a less than ideal model in being inimical to individuals voluntarily pursuing church membership apart from the coercion of the temporal sword. Conversely, Truett’s perspective seems to take the Christian outlook of American democratic government conducive to Baptist principles for granted.

[17] Bradford Littlejohn, “The Civil Magistrate,” in Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction, eds. Onsi Aaron Kamel, Jake Meador, and Joseph Minich, 23–44 (Landrum, SC: The Davenant Press, 2022).

[18] John Gill, “Romans 13:4,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible. From Bible Study Tools. Accessed on May 9, 2023. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/

[19] Roger Williams, Mr. Cottons letter lately printed, examined and answered (London, 1644), 45. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/a96614.0001.001

[20] See Cory Higdon, “Contest of Civility: Conformity, Dissent, and the Struggle for Religious Liberty.” PhD dissertation (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2022), 249–281. https://hdl.handle.net/10392/6746

[21] Hamburger, Separation of Church and State, 42.

[22] Hamburger, 45, 52.

[23] Isaac Backus, Policy, as well as honesty, forbids the use of secular force in religious affairs (Massachusetts-State: Boston:: Printed by Draper and Folsom, and sold by Phillip Freeman, in Union-Street., 1779), 10. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N12813.0001.001

[24] Backus, Policy, as well as honesty, forbids the use of secular force in religious affairs, 11-12.

[25] Isaac Backus, A history of New-England, with particular reference to the denomination of Christians called Baptists. Containing the first principles and settlements of the country; the rise and increase of the Baptist churches therein; the intrusion of arbitrary power under the cloak of religion; the Christian testimonies of the Baptists and others against the same, with their sufferings under it, from the begining [sic] to the present time. : Collected from most authentic records and writings, both ancient and modern. / By Isaac Backus, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Middleborough. ; Vol. I[-III]. ; [Four lines of quotations] (Boston:: Printed by Edward Draper, at his printing-office in Newbury-Street, and sold by Phillip Freeman, in Union-Street., 1777-96), 216. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N22707.0001.001. In his defense, Williams once stated regarding the accusation that “ever I should speak or write a tittle, that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred.”  Nevertheless, he did not distance himself from his aim to secularize the state so far as it concerned religious affairs. Roger Williams, “Roger Williams to the Town of Providence (Jan. 1655),” in Church and State in the United States, ed. Anton Phelps Stokes (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950), 1:197–98. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions6.html

[26] The notion of the “positive world” as designated by Aaron Renn is in mind here. See Aaron Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” From First Things. Published on February 1, 2022. Accessed on May 9, 2023. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/02/the-three-worlds-of-evangelicalism

[27] Story, “Letter from Joseph Story to Jasper Adams.”

[28] Isaac Backus, “A Declaration of the Rights, of the Inhabitants of the State of Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England (1779),” in The Sacred Rights of Conscience, 276-78.

[29] See Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989); Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[30] Isaac Backus, Government and liberty described; and ecclesiastical tyranny exposed (Boston: Powars and Willis, 1778), 14. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N12452.0001.001

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