A couple weeks ago I commented on one of Russell’s posts about America’s civic religion that if we really have such a thing, it’s Baptist. The comment was more in the spirit of floating an idea that staking out a position, but no one responded to it (the conversation seemed to be winding down anyway), so it didn’t float any further than that. Dwight’s recent post about faith and politics, however, made me think it would be worth pursuing further.
This idea came from a couple books I read a year or two ago: one was Robert Torbet’s A History of the Baptists, and the other one was … well, it was a book about the history of American religion, but I can’t for the life of me remember either the author or the title. So I’m afraid this post is going to be really fuzzily sourced. But what are blogs for, if not for writing essays that would fail to meet academic standards?
Anyway, one thing I took away from both of them was the way that the U.S. Constitution wound up favoring some denominations over others. I had already heard arguments that the document’s stance of religious neutrality really represented an ideology unto itself, generally of a secularist Enlightenment variety. But it became clear to me that it was also taking a side in a long-running argument between religious factions about the nature of church, and hence the relationship between church and state.
When the Baptists came into being in England in the early 1600s, there were several church-state models around Europe: the international parastate that was Catholicism, the soft theocracy of the Church of England, the hard theocracy of Calvinism, the “Two Kingdoms” model of Luther, and the separatism of the Anabaptists. The Baptists were started by an Englishman who hung out with Anabaptists and adopted most of their beliefs, but with a few modifications. One of these was that, while Baptists believed in separation of church and state, they didn’t think this meant total withdrawal from state affairs; Baptists could, and did, serve in the military and hold public office. The exact ramifications of this were just as fuzzy then as they are now. Some Baptists served Cromwell, for instance, hoping this would aid the cause of religious liberty, while others disagreed.
As unclear as the Baptist position was, this was more or less what the founding fathers enshrined in the Constitution. It presumed — indeed, demanded — robust citizen participation in government, and also preserved free exercise of religion, but forbade an established church. The fact that not all churches were equally prepared for this is apparent when you look at the dominant churches of the day. The Anglican church, where much of the Southern elite resided, had the obvious problem that it was in a country that had revolted against its formal head, the King of England. New England, meanwhile, was still controlled by descendants of the Calvinist theocrats who first colonized it. (Torbet’s book notes that a New England Baptist wrote to John Adams complaining of persecution; Adams said he was sympathetic, but he had as much chance of changing the course of the solar system as budging the Congregationalist establishment.) The Quakers and Mennonites held the majority in Pennsylvania, but, being pacifists, they largely sat out the Revolution. Most of the founding fathers formally belonged to one of the dominant churches, but many of them privately held deist or Unitarian beliefs. That sort of double life is pretty common in a world of state-supported churches, but with disestablishment it lost its point.
Given all that, it’s not terribly surprising that the American religious landscape started changing massively within decades of the Revolution. The biggest beneficiaries, in terms of numbers, were two denominations that had never been established anywhere: Baptists and Methodists. In fact, another thing I learned from my reading is just how important John Wesley was to the formation of American Christianity. I had always wondered, for instance, why churches are filled with small groups, and try from the outset to steer you into one. Turns out Wesley started that. He was also the one who emphasized the importance of having a “born again” experience, and of having a personal relationship with Jesus. American evangelicalism, for the most part, is a mash-up of Baptist ecclesiology with Wesleyan theology.
But getting back to the subject of church and state. The reason why Baptist ecclesiology was so well suited to the U.S.A. is not just its views on church and state, but the underlying belief in the voluntary religious choices of individuals. This may sound like the same thing, but it’s actually somewhat different. The government in Augustine’s day, for instance, tolerated a number of local religions but granted religious authorities a lot of judicial power over their membership — including, if need be, the power of the sword. By defending the rights of the individual to migrate from one church to another, the U.S. government is taking a position on the nature of church that favors a Baptist interpretation over others (certainly, over Augustine’s).
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this — true neutrality on this point would have been impossible, and I have no yen to return to Augustine’s Africa. But it is striking how now, all these discussions about civic religion and church/state relations resemble the arguments that Baptists used to have among themselves, rather than the larger arguments between different Christian groups. Even the fact that we have arguments in the first place is very Baptist; the Baptists were the pioneers of doing church based on the Bible alone with no central magisterium, so of course there were disagreements from the beginning.
This, I think, is precisely the source of Dwight’s frustration:
I have cited as an example that of Minnesota’s political mess: Because of a looming budget deficit and the inability of the governor to work with the legislature to reach reasonable accommodations in each party’s rhetorical stances, the state faces a situation in which the budget deficit will be made up by using accounting shifts (a dishonest, though apparently legal way to deal with things) and by the governor’s exercising what he calls his “unallotment” powers – i.e., his ability (also apparently legal) unilaterally and according to his own discretion to cut program funds wherever he wants. He has announced that most of his cutting will be to health and well-being programs (such as money for hospitals, nursing homes, and services for disabled people) and to GAMC, which is the state’s program of health insurance for the poorest people in Minnesota. In short, he is going to protect rich people from tax increases and balance the budget on the backs of poor and sick people.
Now the governor touts himself (he is quite open about) as a Christian. So I claim that by the counsels of Matthew 18, every Christian in Minnesota should be at his door or in his email in-box to rebuke him for a particularly cruel approach to public policy that ignores the warnings of Matthew 25. After that, we should go in two’s and three’s. Then we should address him through our bishops. If he fails to see the light, we should treat him as a “gentile and a tax collector” – most ironic, given his stance. But note that this doesn’t mean that we join the Democratic Party (heaven forfend, in my opinion) or pray for the success of a candidate who runs against him. Using the political-party system “as Christians” to work our will is not the way to go, any more than that it was Jesus’ way to become a Zealot in order to effect and manifest the reign of his Father.
Of course, the problem is that there isn’t really a unified Christian body to do all these things. The fact that vocal Christian Tim Pawlenty and vocal Christian Dwight P. find themselves in this situation points out an uncomfortable fact about how modern America is different from ancient Rome. The people are not divided into Christians and pagans; the people are divided into Christians and heretics. And the U.S. Constitution has pretty well prevented any consensus on which is which.
I should add that “heretics” include people like me, descended from two generations of non-believers. The decisions by my grandparents to turn away from their Congregationalist and Episcopalian upbringings transmitted both some of the values and assumptions of those upbringings, and the fears and aversions that caused the break. I think that is why I ultimately found Yoder’s and Hauerwas’ analogies between America and Rome unsatisfactory. However many Christians would like to be a counterculture, they can’t escape a certain responsibility for the culture they are countering. Whether or not we are all Baptists now, this is still pretty much a family quarrel.