Against Religious Establishment in Baptist Political Theology
In 2015, the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex “marriage” in Obergefell v. Hodges. In the eight years since, American culture has increasingly accepted revisionist views of gender and marriage. The new sexual orthodoxy was a long time in the making, as Carl Trueman demonstrates persuasively in his much-discussed book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Still, orthodox evangelicals and other moral traditionalists have been left reeling from how quickly the world is changing around us.
For a growing number of progressive politicians, libertine celebrities, and “woke” corporations, mere acceptance of the new sexual orthodoxy is not enough. These influencers and powerbrokers have fully bought in, and they seek to leverage whatever power they wield to compel affirmation from cultural troglodytes like us who still affirm outdated views of gender, sexuality, and marriage. They believe they’re on the right side of history. In reality, they are the religious crusaders. And their anti-gospel is that traditionalists must convert to the new sexual orthodoxy or die—at least figuratively speaking—via cancellation and ostracization.
Some orthodox believers have responded to the growing decadence of American culture by championing various forms of Christian Nationalism or advocating for a return to a form of Christian commonwealth, like the nation-states that arose during and immediately following the Reformation era. In some Reformed quarters, theonomy has once again become an acceptable view, while in more charismatic circles, dominionism weds aspects of theonomy with the prosperity gospel. Whatever their differences, adherents to each of these positions believe Christian political theology ought to make the case that America should, in some sense, be a “Christian nation.”
While few Baptists would admit to embracing theonomy or dominionism, some contemporary Baptists are sympathetic to Christian Nationalism or drawn to the idea of a Christian commonwealth. These “establishmentarian” Baptists attempt to reconcile the historic Baptist commitment to religious liberty for all with traditionally magisterial Protestant understandings of a Christian nation. They do not want anyone to be persecuted for their religious beliefs; they simply want a modified religious establishment wherein the government promotes (or at least privileges) true religion.
I believe establishmentarian Baptists mean well. I resonate deeply with their desire for a nation that is more influenced by Christian ethics and restrains, rather than promotes, moral evils. I lament the decreased influence that a biblical worldview has in the public square. Nevertheless, Baptists cannot embrace any form of Christian Nationalism or commonwealth without rejecting the political theology that has characterized most Baptists throughout history. From the beginning of the Baptist movement in the seventeenth century, the vast majority of Baptists have rejected religious establishments as a threat to flourishing faith.
EARLY ENGLISH BAPTISTS
In 1644, seven Particular Baptist churches in London came together to draft a confession of faith. That confession, which came to be called the First London Baptist Confession, was not the earliest Baptist confessional statement. General Baptist ministers had written similar documents since 1611, when Thomas Helwys wrote a confession explaining the views of the earliest English-speaking Baptist congregation in Amsterdam. But prior to 1644, no group of Baptist churches had adopted a confession that summarized their common faith.
The early Particular Baptists were heirs of the English Separatists, a radical puritan movement that had rejected the Church of England as apostate and argued for autonomous congregations of believers who were bound together by covenant. But like the General Baptists before them, at least some of the London Particular Baptists had also interacted with Continental Anabaptists during the 1630s, when they were wrestling with pedobaptism and moving toward the credobaptist position.
Not surprisingly, there were accusations that the Particular Baptists were really Anabaptists. This claim had also been made about the General Baptists. This was not merely a question about whether Baptists had embraced a heterodox view of baptism. Anabaptism was a remarkably diverse movement that ranged from pacifists who rejected the validity of Christian magistrates to revolutionary movements that sought to establish Anabaptist theocracies. For nations with an established state church, like England, Anabaptism was considered a potential threat to the social order.
The London Particular Baptists argued in the preamble to their 1644 confession that they were “unjustly” called Anabaptists. But they also made this clear in their articles that addressed the magistrate. Article 48 argued that “a civil magistrate is an ordinance of God,” while Article 49 acknowledged that the “supreme Magistrate of this Kingdom” was King and Parliament. But Article 49 also noted that the Particular Baptists could not in good conscience submit to some “ecclesiastical laws.” Article 50 expressed hope that God would mercifully “incline the magistrates’ hearts so far to tender our consciences, as that we might be protected by them from wrong, injury, oppression and molestation,” as had been characteristic when Catholic monarchs had persecuted Protestant dissenters in the previous century.
The remaining articles made clear, however, that even if the magistrates would not abide by the consciences of the London Particular Baptists, they would continue to practice their faith according to their understanding of Scripture, which included praying for the magistrates and submitting to their authority in all matters that did not contradict Scripture. The desire of the Baptists was to always have “a clear conscience void of offense towards God” (Article 53), even if falsely accused of heresy, thus rendering faithfully what is due to both God and Caesar.
The position articulated by the London Particular Baptists represented a third way that rejected elements of both magisterial Protestantism and Anabaptism. Simply stated, they affirmed God’s grace in granting a nation magistrates who are Christians but rejected the authority of those magistrates to establish state churches or compel religious observance. They believed local churches should be autonomous covenanted communities of baptized believers who submitted to the rule of Christ by obeying his commands in Scripture. They argued for liberty of conscience in matters of religion, though they believed that one’s conscience should submit to the supreme authority of Scripture.
It is important to note that the London Particular Baptists were not arguing for what we might today call a secularist state that is hostile to religion. They wanted Christian magistrates who passed laws that reflected the natural law and the biblical ethics of the second table of the Ten Commandments. This was a key difference between the Anabaptist and Baptist positions, reflected a few years later when some Baptists served in political offices during the Interregnum. However, they did not want a religious establishment with the power to coerce conformity or persecute dissenters—including heretics and unbelievers. True worship is not a legitimate concern of the state.
An establishmentarian Baptist might appeal to John Gill (1697–1771), the most influential Baptist theologian of the mid-eighteenth century. Gill argued in his Body of Practical Divinity for the right of rulers to be “guardians” of both tables of the law, thereby promoting true religion and punishing impiety and blasphemy. However, one could reasonably respond that Gill’s fusing of magisterial Protestant political theology with Baptist ecclesiology was inconsistent. It is worth noting that few other Particular Baptists appealed to Gill’s view of the magistrates, even though he was regularly cited as a theological authority in other matters. Gill may well have been a noteworthy establishmentarian Baptist, but he was also an outlier in the Baptist tradition. Modern establishmentarian Baptists should admit as much if they seek to retrieve Gill’s political theology and apply it in our contemporary context.
BAPTISTS IN AMERICA
The trajectory established by the London Particular Baptists also showed up among Baptists in the American Colonies and later the United States. Roger Williams and John Cotton were the respective founders of the first two Baptist churches in North America, as well as the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation. Each man argued for religious liberty and rejected the idea of a state church. In 1644, the same year as the First London Confession, Williams went so far as to argue for a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world” in a letter to Cotton, a puritan minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thomas Jefferson would later use similar language in his 1802 letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wherein he argued for a “wall of separation” between church and state.
In 1742, the Philadelphia Baptist Association adopted a confession that was lightly revised from the Second London Confession of 1689. The Philadelphia Confession affirmed the biblical validity of civil magistrates (Ch. 24), but also affirmed liberty of conscience (Ch. 21) and the local church as an autonomous community of covenanted, baptized believers (Ch. 26). This was consistent with the positions outlined in the First London Confession, though the later confession said less about magistrates and offered a more developed ecclesiology.
In the latter years of the colonial era and initial years of the Early Republic, roughly 1770 to 1800, Isaac Backus and John Leland emerged as the key voices for the Baptist view of church and state. Backus has often been identified as an “accommodationist” who was comfortable with the idea of a broadly Christian commonwealth, while Leland has often been labeled a “strict separationist” who assumed a more pluralistic view of church and state. However, recent scholarship has demonstrated their views were not that dissimilar. Both men thought it desirable that magistrates be believers, both wanted laws that reflected biblical values as much as possible, both argued against the validity of state churches, and both championed religious liberty for all people. They emphatically rejected religious establishments.
Into the nineteenth century, American Baptist confessions continued to affirm traditional Baptist views, though adapted to a context where there was no longer a state church from which to dissent. For example, Article 13 of the New Hampshire Confession (1833) affirmed regenerate church membership and believer’s baptism, while Article 16 affirmed the divine origin of civil government, the need to pray for magistrates, and the necessity of obeying them “except in things opposed to the will of God.” The Abstract of Principles (1858) echoes elements of Philadelphia and New Hampshire in Articles 14 and 18.
Throughout the twentieth century, Baptists continued to affirm their historic views of church and state. Scholars such as E.Y. Mullins argued for the Baptist view in his influential treatise Axioms of Religion (1908), while in 1920 Texas pastor George Truett preached a famous sermon on the topic, titled “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” from the steps of the US Capitol. The Baptist Faith and Message (1925) reflected the historic position in Articles 12 and 18, respectively. This consensus endured until the latter decades of the twentieth century.
CIVIL RELIGION AND CULTURE WARS
It was not until the midcentury that significant tensions arose that paved the way for our current debates. On the one hand, the postwar years were the apex of America’s traditional civil religion, which was broadly Judeo-Christian in its ethos. Following the Second World War, it became far more common for churches to place American flags in their sanctuaries and sacralize patriotic holidays such as Memorial Day and Independence Day during Sunday worship services. During this time, many churches throughout the country changed their names to Victory or Victory Memorial.
During the Eisenhower Administration, the government also made a number of national gestures to promote civil religion in the public square. Notably, in 1954 Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, followed in 1956 by a joint resolution adopting “In God We Trust” as the national motto of the United States. Both moves were attempts to position the United States as a righteous counterpart to the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union. During these years, the National Council of Churches was provided with airtime on the radio and television, Billy Graham became a household name, and church attendance reached record highs.
At the exact moment when millions of Americans were comfortable with the idea that America was a Christian nation—or at least a God-fearing nation—everything seemed to change. The period between 1960 and 1990 witnessed the sexual revolution, the height of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of several public leaders, campus protests, racial riots, the Vietnam War, antiwar movements, legalized elective abortion, third-wave feminism, the rise of an organized homosexual lobby, battles over public-school textbooks, debates over nuclear disarmament, a presidential impeachment and resignation—and the list could go on.
The decline of American civil religion, coupled with the increasing turmoil of the earliest culture wars, contributed to the rise of the Religious Right. Some Baptist ministers became key leaders in the Religious Right, while countless Baptist laypeople became engaged in national politics for the first time. Even those theologically conservative Baptists who were less interested in partisan politics were sympathetic to the Religious Right’s agenda of promoting family values, championing traditional views of gender and sexuality, and opposing abortion-on-demand.
Unfortunately, many Baptists were also influenced by Christian nationalist voices in the Religious Right who argued that America had been founded as a Christian nation and simplistically equated church-state separation with secularism. Evangelical Baptist public witness to a free church in a free state has been muddied ever since, leading directly to the present debate over magisterial Baptists.
Evangelical Baptists should reject political theologies that promote state-endorsed religion. Such a posture almost inevitably leads to coercion in matters of faith, the confusion of piety with patriotism, and the proliferation of nominal Christianity. The earliest Baptists rightly rejected state churches and championed religious freedom for all. Establishmentarian Baptists mean well, but now is not the time to abandon the best of our Baptist heritage. The fusing of magisterial Protestant political theology with Baptist ecclesiology is ultimately untenable, and if history is any indication, it may well result in a loss of evangelistic urgency and a rejection of regenerate church membership.
Yet, it is not enough for Baptists to limit our political theology to trumpeting religious liberty, while America, in the memorable words of Robert Bork, slouches towards Gomorrah. Baptist political theology must also equip Baptist believers to challenge secularism in the public square and promote authentic human flourishing that is consistent with the Natural Law, the Scriptures, and the best insights of the Christian intellectual tradition. I am thankful for contemporary Baptist thinkers such as Jonathan Leeman, Andrew Walker, and Patrick Schreiner, who are leading the way in the retrieval of distinctively Baptist political theology for the sake of a more faithful public witness.