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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Resisting Christian nationalism

It may surprise you to learn that, before Deborah and I moved here from Houston, I attended a Baptist church. Your impressions of Baptists probably have been shaped by members of the Southern Baptist Convention, who are, for the most part, fundamentalist Christians and part of Trump’s base.

But Baptists come in several flavors and tend to be sorted into “conventions.” My former congregation was affiliated with The American Baptist Churches, USA (a.k.a. Northern Baptists). It was also a “partner congregation” with The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (LBGT friendly), The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and The Center for Progressive Christianity.

Southern Baptists have severed connection with their Baptist heritage in several important ways. The one that most impacts the rest of us is their entanglement of church and state. Symbolic of that entanglement is the presence of the American flag in some of their sanctuaries. Substantively, they seek to get prayers back into public schools, federal funding for their social service programs, and even a declaration that the U.S. is a Christian nation.

In a conversation published in the November 2003 edition of Baptists Today, former president Jimmy Carter criticized the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention for becoming politically partisan. “I believe in the separation of church and state,” Carter said. “I think the Southern Baptist Convention leaders have gotten deeply immersed in politics as partners with the Republican Party. And even if they were partners with the Democratic Party, I’d still object to it.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Anabaptists (so named because they didn’t believe in infant baptism) were persecuted in every European country whether its established religion was Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican or Calvinist. The same was true in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the Puritans were interested in freedom of religion only for themselves, not for everyone.

The great champion of religious liberty and separation of church and state in colonial times was Roger Williams (1603-1683), who was forced out of Massachusetts and then founded the First Baptist Church in America and what became the Colony of Rhode Island, where religious liberty was guaranteed. And it was the Baptist minister Isaac Backus (1724-1806) who most vigorously promoted those positions as the U.S. Constitution was being drafted and then ratified.

Today, that heritage is best represented in the public forum by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJConline.org), which is supported by numerous Baptist conventions, although not by the Southern Baptists. BJC is a powerful advocate for separation of church and state in Congress and the federal courts.

Very recently, BJC launched its Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign to counter the widespread effort to merge American and Christian identities. One of the campaign’s eight tenets is, “Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to the oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.”

Because it’s based in the churches, this campaign can’t be as easily dismissed by Christian legislators as similar efforts by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which has been working toward the same end but is regarded (albeit unfairly) as hostile to religion. To read the full campaign statement and sign on, go to ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org. I urge those of us who are in Christian congregations to bring the campaign to our fellow members. To date, there are about 15 thousand signatories. We need 15 million.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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