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SBC resolutions regarding religious liberty and the separation of church and state (1940-1997): a fundamental shift.

Stances for religious liberty and the separation of church and state have long been among the hallmarks of Baptists. Baptists in America, in particular, have especially had a long record of supporting strict separation and absolute religious liberty.

This article will briefly review the doctrinal reasons for and the history of Baptist efforts toward and statements on religious liberty and separation of church and state in America. It then traces the changing attitudes of the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC] away from its traditional values as reflected by resolutions passed in SBC annual meetings from 1940 through 1997. The resolutions are grouped chronologically under three themes: general statements and issues of continuing concern, statements on taxation and tax support, and statements on religion and public schools. The article concludes by comparing and contrasting the resolutions and describing how the differences delineate significant fundamental historical and ideological shifts in the SBC from 1940 through 1997.

I. Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State as Baptist Distinctives

Theological Underpinnings

The great Texas and Southern Baptist leader, George W. Truett, once said:
 Never, anywhere, in any clime, has a true Baptist been willing, for one
 minute, for the union of church and state, never for a moment ... That
 utterance of Jesus "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and
 unto God the things that are God's," is one of the most revolutionary and
 history-making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That
 utterance, once for all, marked the divorcement of church and state. (1)

In describing why he chose to unite with Baptists, evangelist Billy Graham wrote, "I share with Baptists a strong belief in the separation of church and state" and went on briefly to describe Baptist contributions to that end. (2) The late R. G. Lee, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee, put it this way: "There should be religious liberty for all people ... There should be complete separation of church and state at all times--no matter what, no matter who, no matter where." (3)

To understand the doctrinal foundations of this issue so important to Baptists, one may look to Edgar Young Mullins, one-time president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In his Axioms of Religion, Mullins listed, defined, and described six general truths basic to faith. Among them was the "Religious Axiom" that "All souls have an equal right to direct access to God." The "Moral Axiom" was "To be responsible man must be free." The "Religio-civic Axiom" called for "A free Church in a free State." In chapter 11 of Axioms, Mullins connected the concepts of soul freedom and the separation of church and state:
 The Church is a voluntary organization, the State compels obedience. ...
 The direct allegiance in the Church is to God, in the State it is to law
 and government. One is for the protection of life and property, the other
 for the promotion of spiritual life. An established religion, moreover,
 subverts the principle of equal rights and equal privileges to all which is
 part of our organic law. Both on its political and on its religious side
 the doctrine of separation of Church and State holds good. Civil liberty
 and religious liberty alike forbid their union. (4)

Mullins was echoing what John Smyth, sometimes called "the founder of the modern Baptist churches" (5) had written in Propositions and Conclusions concerning True Christian Religion, containing a Confession of Faith of certain English people living in Amsterdam (1612):
 84. That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with
 religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that
 form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to
 every man's conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom.
 xiii), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft,
 etc., for Christ only is the king, and law giver of the church and
 conscience. (6)

George W. Truett concurred with Mullins in connecting soul freedom and competency with religious liberty and separation of church and state. (7) He also pointed out the doctrine of biblical authority as foundational to the other two doctrines. If people truly look to the Bible as their "rule of faith and practice," they must be free from externally-imposed traditions, customs, councils, confessions, and ecclesiastical formulations. Only in that way can they live ruled "simply and solely [by] the will of Christ as they find it revealed in the New Testament." (8)

The Baptist Faith and Message adopted by the SBC in 1963 was an update (with a few minor revisions of substance, but several in structure) of a statement of faith adopted in 1925 (which was itself strongly influenced by Mullins and based on the New Hampshire Confession of Faith of 1833). The article on "Religious Liberty" (one of the sections not found in the New Hampshire Confession, but included in the 1925 document) closely reflecting the thought of Mullins, held that:
 God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the
 doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not
 contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to
 every [the 1925 statement read "the" instead of "every"] church protection
 and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for
 such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by
 the state more than others ... The church should not resort to the civil
 power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual
 means alone for the pursuit of its ends ... A free church in a free state
 is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered
 access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate
 opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

Herschel H. Hobbs, who chaired the committee that developed the 1963 revised Baptist Faith and Message, explained that Baptist stances on religious liberty were based on the authority of Bible, on the freedom that results from people being created in God's image, and on the Lordship of Christ. "It [religious liberty] implies the competency of the soul in religion, and denies to any person, civil government, or religious system the right to come between God and man (1 Tim. 2:1-6)." (10) Hobbs also put it this way: "Baptists insist upon religious freedom, not for themselves alone, but for all people. They witness to the lost. But they insist that a person has the right to be a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist as he so chooses." (11)

Historical Overview

Baptist forebears in Europe suffered greatly at the hands of the respective state-established churches. Over the issue of pedo-baptism they were martyred or imprisoned by Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian governments and churches alike. In most of the American colonies, Baptists fared little better, the sufferings of those such as Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, Henry Dunster, and others in Massachusetts being prime examples.

However, Baptist leadership regarding religious liberty in North America could be said to have been best exemplified in the southern colonies and particularly in Virginia. Baptists spoke out against the laws that catered to and/or called for taxation in support of the established (Anglican) church. One of the most significant and outspoken Baptists on the issue of religious liberty was John Leland who exerted his influence on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others through his preaching, writing, and--in some cases--friendship. Leland's influence (and that of other Baptists) can be said to have elicited Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom of 1785 and Madison's authorship of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The witness of other Virginia Baptists such as Andrew Tribble, John Waller, Louis Craig, and James Childs also impacted Madison, Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. (12)

Early on much of the Baptist concern with religious liberty and non-establishment related to issues of taxation for support of churches. But just under 120 years after the ratification of the Constitution, Mullins wrote defending the exemption of churches from paying property taxes. He believed that churches had "earned" such exemptions because of their positive contributions to the nation and society. Admitting to the valid concerns of complexity of the issue), he nevertheless concluded, that:
 To impose a tax is to assert sovereignty, but the State is not sovereign
 over the Church whose allegiance is to God alone. Moreover, to concede the
 right to tax involves a concession of the right to confiscate upon proper
 occasion. Thus the right to tax on the part of the State destroys the
 freedom of the Church, so that it is no longer a free Church in a free
 State. (13)

Mullins also voiced another, broader concern: "As to the Bible in public schools there has been much difference of opinion among Americans. Baptists very generally and consistently oppose the reading of the Bible in the schools, because they respect the consciences of all others." (14)

II. Resolutions Regarding General Statements on Religious Liberty and Issues of Continuing Concern

Perhaps because the 1939 SBC had approved a "Pronouncement on Religious Liberty," not until 1946 was a resolution passed that dealt in some general way with religious liberty and separation of church and state. The 1946 resolution requested that the Committee on Public Relations (pre-cursor to the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs) list and explain "any and all proposals now officially before Congress, and all executive actions, orders or directives now in effect, that violate the letter and spirit of the Constitution and laws of the United States respecting separation of church and state and religious freedom." (15) In 1957, the SBC approved resolution number 6, on "Religious Liberty," that strongly affirmed the "voluntary principle of religious commitment" and recognized that "religious persuasion or coercion by the use of political power engenders antagonistic attitudes toward churches and the Christian message." The intent was "to make known our Baptist aversion to any effort to use the administrative, legislative, or judicial powers of government to lay the weight of a feather upon the conscience of any man in the realm of religion by privilege or penalty." (16) In a 1959 resolution, the SBC noted that the separation of church and state was "a valuable arrangement" yet noted the often complex nature of related issues. (17) Three germane resolutions were passed in 1960: "Christian Citizenship," "Public Affairs and P.O.A.U.," and "Tax Aid for Churches" (which will be dealt with in the next section). Resolution No. 4, on "Christian Citizenship," was obviously a response to concerns over the presidential candidacy of the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy. The resolution reaffirmed the SBC "faith in the historic principle of separation of Church and State as expressed in the Bill of Rights and the constitutional guarantee that a man's personal faith shall not be a test of his qualification for public office." It recognized that "when a public official is inescapably bound by the dogma and demands of his church he cannot consistently separate himself from these." It recognized that sometimes the demands of public office regarding religious liberty and separation of church and state could bring office holders into conflict with the expressed position of their faith community. The resolution stated: "In all cases a public official should be free from sectarian pressures that he may make independent decisions consistent with the rights and privileges of all citizens." (18)

Resolution No. 5 on "Public Affairs and P.O.A.U.," commended the two organizations (the former referring to the Baptist Committee on Public Affairs--BJCPA--and the latter being Protestants and Other Americans United) for their work "emphasizing our blood-bought heritage of religious freedom and its corollary, the separation of Church and State...." (19)

The 1964 SBC approved a statement that endorsed the "concepts and vocabulary of the First Amendment, including its prohibition on government roles in religious programs and its protection of free exercise of religion for the people" and encouraged national and denominational leaders to remain faithful to those concepts and that Baptist heritage. The opening paragraph of the resolution implied a connection between the denomination's efforts and success in evangelism and missions and the ensuing statement on religious liberty and separation of church and state. (20) In contrast, the 1995 SBC adopted a resolution "On Religious Liberty and World Evangelization," asserting "the right of freedom of conscience in religious concerns and the right to convert or change one's religion not due to coercion but due to alteration of conscience and conviction" and expressed "its support for all peoples suffering denial of religious liberty, but especially for those who are of the household of faith, and even more particularly for those who share Baptist convictions and commitments." (21)

A resolution titled "On Christian Citizenship" was approved in 1975 in anticipation of the United States Bicentennial, but was an affirmation of the involvement of individual Christians in the political process rather than a statement on religious liberty or separation of church and state. (22) A similarly labeled resolution was approved by the 1980 SBC. However, there were significant points of departure or emphasis. The introductory paragraph refers to "three institutions as the foundation for society: the home, the church, and the government, all of which are to be God centered and established upon biblical principles ..." It asked that Christian citizens see the end of their political involvement that "men and women who subscribe to and are governed by moral principles based on biblical authority be elected to public office ..." It further resolved, "That this assembly reaffirm the doctrine of our forefathers of separation of church and state which should not be interpreted to mean, however, the separation of God from government." (23)

The following year saw the SBC approve a resolution "On Affirming Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State." This resolution was strongly worded noting that those significant Baptist notions were "under constant attack by those who would serve sectarian purposes." It expressed appreciation for the leadership of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the Christian Life Commission for their leadership on those issues and disdain for groups who sought to "define and pronounce for all people what is the Christian faith, and to seek through political means to impose this faith upon the American people...." (24) The resolution had significant opposition with 41.13 percent voting against it (57.53 percent voted for approval). (25)

That same convention passed a resolution "On Christian Citizenship." This brief statement made no mention of religious liberty and separation of church and state. It reasoned that since "God has given us a unique political system," the "Bible urges individual Christian involvement in the political process," and since "there is a new openness and awareness of Christian responsibility to influence the direction and character of our nation," it is proper that "Southern Baptists reaffirm our historic commitment to Christian citizenship." (26)

Among the early issues of continuing concern was the presidential appointment of a personal representative or ambassador to the Vatican. According to a 1940 resolution, such action was a "disservice" as well as "in violation and circumvention of the plain meaning of the Constitution." The feeling was that it "in essence made it [the U.S.] subject and subservient to the Vatican." (27) Similar concern was reflected in the 1952 SBC's approval of the "Report of the Committee on Relations with Other Religious Bodies" (28) and a resolution "On Church-State Relations" adopted by the 1965 SBC. (29) This 1965 statement admitted to the complexity of the issue, but explicitly connected the "traditional [Baptist] position on the separation of church and state by having a `free church in a free state'" to its opposing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Vatican. The resolution also commended the BJCPA and POAU for their leadership and championing the cause of religious liberty and separation of church and state. (30) Similar concerns were registered in a 1986 resolution, "Opposition to Continuance of Ambassador to the Holy See." (31)

Another matter of concern was what were perceived as encroachments on Sunday as the "Lord's Day." A 1962 resolution noted "a wide tendency in many communities toward a seven-day business week" and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized the legality of "blue laws." However, rather than making a firm stand on the issue, it simply resolved that the BJCPA and the SBC Baptist Sunday School Board and Christian Life Commission should study and disseminate information regarding how the issue might impact religious liberty. (32) Eleven years later the SBC adopted a more strongly worded statement "On the Lord's Day" regarding what was seen as "an accelerated secularization of Sunday." That resolution saw potential for people having to choose between work and worship and, so, the need for the SBC to "reaffirm our belief in each individual's right to a time of worship according to the dictates of his conscience." It called on local and state governments to "preserve the unique character of Sunday as a day for rest and human welfare" and on denominational agencies and institutions "to protect Sundays from scheduled activities and employ only those personnel needed to carry on absolutely necessary activities." (33)

A corollary concern was reflected in a 1981 resolution regarding congressional discussions on the possibility of moving national elections from Tuesday to Sunday. According to the SBC, that, too, would endanger Sunday as a day of worship and, so, church attendance. It called on Southern Baptists to write their members of Congress and "express their views regarding this matter of importance to the spiritual life of our nation." (34)

In 1978, both houses of Congress were considering measures to tighten laws regulating lobbying. The 1978 SBC saw the proposed legislation as an effort "to bring churches and not-for-profit groups under controls" and passed a resolution decrying such legislation as a threat to religious liberty and, more specifically, to the free exercise cause of the First Amendment. The resolution stated, "Each religious group in this country has the constitutional right to determine for itself what is integral to its religious mission and ministry and cannot afford to sacrifice a constitutional right in order to exercise a statutory privilege...." (35)

A resolution regarding religious liberty and employment issues was adopted by the SBC in 1977. It was passed in response to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) suit against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for refusing to honor the EEOC's request for data related to the racial and gender statistics of the seminary's personnel. The resolution stated that as an educational institution with a "distinctively religious purpose," Southwestern was well within its rights in refusing the EEOC's request. The statement referred to issues of religious liberty and the "entanglement in which either Church or State intrudes into the other's precincts" and it asserted "the right of a religious institution to discriminate on religious grounds [as] essential to the institution's protection of its religious purpose and the preservation of its religious character." (36)

A 1991 resolution "On Endangerment of Our Religious Liberties" took a similar tone in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). In that decision the Court upheld the firing of two drug rehabilitation organization employees for having ingested the hallucinogen, peyote. Though the two had claimed their use of peyote was part of a sacrament of the Native American Church, the Court held that the law forbidding the practice was held in general and had not been directed out of religious motivation. In its statement the SBC held that the Court's decision put the enforcement of "generally applicable laws" above religious liberty. In rather strident language (using phrases such as "express our outrage"), the convention went on to speak against the use of illegal drugs and to deny that abortion rights [even though the issue of abortion is not addressed in the decision, nor is the word "abortion" even to be found in its text] were protected by the Free Exercise Clause. (37)

Religious persecution and harassment have also been issues of continuing concern for the SBC. As noted, the SBC had long recognized the benefits that religious freedom held and could hold for their missionary and evangelistic efforts. A 1975 resolution was consistent with this, calling on all Christians to pray for Christians under persecution and dedicating. Southern Baptists to give "greater diligence and service [to] preserving our liberty as Americans ..." (38) (The same SBC also adopted a statement "On Religious Broadcasting and Religious Freedom." This resolution was in response to a petition before the Federal Communications Commission which--in the opinion of the resolution--would have restricted further licensing of religious broadcasting. The statement read in part: "The right to propagate religious views is implicit in the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment." (39) However, the petition in question, submitted to the FCC by two California broadcast consultants, would actually have only restricted awarding to religious institutions FM and TV frequencies reserved for educational use. The petition was unanimously denied on August 1, 1975.

The 1994 SBC, in a resolution "On EEOC Guidelines on Religious Harassment," expressed its concern that the EEOC was considering the inclusion of religion in a "consolidated set of rules to all charges of workplace harassment." The concern focused on three basic issues: the "vague and ambiguous" language of the proposed guidelines, the "`chilling effect' [the guidelines] would have upon free religious expression in the workplace," and the potential for some employers "to avoid lawsuits by adopting company policies which severely restrict freedom of religious expression among employees in the workplace ... "The resolution directed the Christian Life Commission to encourage the deletion of religion from the guidelines and that religious harassment be dealt with separately. (40) A 1997 resolution more clearly expressed SBC concern for religious persecution--based on the scriptural roots of religious liberty as well as the belief "that all people should have the God-given freedom to form and hold opinions and religious beliefs and prorogate [propagate?--The context allows for either, but the meaning is significantly changed depending on which term is intended.] them without interference from or coercion by any ..." Revealing is that the resolution called on "believers to pray fervently for persecuted Christians worldwide and to pray for and urge government officials to eliminate such practices in countries where religious persecution exists"--no mention being made of circumstances in which Christians are the persecutors nor any call for such "believers" to desist from the practice of persecuting non-Christians. (41)

III. Resolutions Regarding Taxes


As E. Y. Mullins had observed, the tax relationship of the government and the church is a complex one. Not to tax churches could be seen as a form of indirect subsidy. To be able to tax, however, implies the right to control. The SBC has historically been sensitive to those issues.

A 1976 resolution was passed in response to impending Internal Revenue Service actions in the wake of the Tax Reform Act of 1969. The act required nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations to file certain financial reports with the IRS, but exempted religious groups and their "integrated auxiliaries." The IRS was seeking to determine exactly what was meant by "integrated auxiliary." Concerned about the implications for religious liberty and establishment of religion, the competency of the IRS to make such determinations, and that a definition proposed by the IRS would "exclude religious groups' schools, hospitals, orphanages, homes for retired persons, etc., from the category of `integrated auxiliaries' and thus require them to file additional tax reports," the SBC registered its protest of "the Internal Revenue Service into the affairs of church groups," determined to preserve "religious liberty which according to our best understanding, has been good for both state and for church in our nation," and requested the BJCPA to communicate the resolution to the Commissioner of the IRS. (42) Despite the protestations of the 1976 SBC, in 1977 the IRS did amend its rules including a definition of "integrated auxiliary" of a religious organization. This elicited from the 1977 SBC a resolution that expressed that body's "grave concern over this violation of the Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state" and requested the BJCPA to continue to voice opposition to that and other intrusions. (43)

When, in 1984, some churches in Jackson, Tennessee, had been requested by the state to file as political campaign committees (they had given funds in opposition to a local liquor-by-the-drink referendum), the 1985 SBC registered its dismay similar to that above. The resolution passed by that body pointed to that action as an "infringement upon the churches' rights to address moral concerns" and claimed it would serve "to chill the free exercise of religion ... and to draw churches into entangling subservience to government." (44)

A related issue surfaced in 1985 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a tax reform bill the effect of which (among other things) would have resulted in the revocation of the tax-exempt status of the SBC Annuity Board. The 1986 SBC passed a resolution stating that "a direct tax on these pension boards is tantamount to a tax on the churches themselves" and, so, constituted "a serious threat to the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States." (45)

Tax Support

The subject eliciting the most responses in the form of resolutions has been that of use of tax monies in direct or indirect support of religious institutions. The 1947 SBC responded to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Everson v. Board of Education with a lengthy resolution. That statement referred to several pending state and federal legislations as well as the Court's 5-4 vote in Everson all of which supported some form of using tax funds in varying forms of support for parochial schools. Agreeing with the principles set forth by Justice Black in his majority opinion, the resolution quoted him extensively yet differed with him in application. It held, among other things, that the New Jersey practice upheld by Everson (i.e., the use of tax monies to reimburse parents of parochial school children for the cost of transporting their children to their respective schools) could ultimately lead to "strife and division among our American people" and "unwholesome linking of state influence upon church or church influence upon state." Further, it was "infringing upon the separation of church and state and violating guaranteed principles of our Constitution." The resolution called for legislation that would "preclude the use of public funds for church purposes or which will contribute to the benefit of any religious group," for "the United States Government to champion firmly the rights of religious minorities everywhere," and for "all American citizens to defend and propagate the principle of religious liberty and separation of church and state...." (46) Later, in that same meeting, the SBC also adopted a much briefer resolution on "Separation of Church and State" that encouraged citizens to write their senators in opposition to pending Senate legislation that "would authorize the appropriation of public funds to non-public or parochial schools." The same session also adopted a resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment for the same purposes. (47) It also approved a recommendation from the Committee on Public Relations that they "call to the attention of all Baptist schools, hospitals, and other Baptist institutions the danger of accepting grants of money from the government." (48) The next year the SBC passed a resolution in opposition to a proposed bill before the House of Representatives that would allow "indirect aid [to parochial schools] out of Federal funds in those states which have constitutions allowing the use of state tax funds for bus transportation and free textbooks for sectarian schools...." (49)

A sequence of two U.S. Supreme Court cases, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) and Zorach v. Clauson (1952), had held first an Illinois weekday released time religious education program to be unconstitutional (McCollum) and then that a New York weekday dismissed time religious education program to be constitutional (Zorach). The 1953 SBC referred to the latter in a resolution titled, "Concerning Use of Tax Funds and Tax-Supported Schools By Religious Organizations." In the resolution, the SBC alluded to the repeated affirmations of Baptists for separation of church and state in reaffirming "its unwavering devotion to the separation of church and state in its strong opposition to the use of tax funds and tax-supported schools in favor of any or all religious organizations" and encouraged "the pastors and churches of our Convention ... to bear vigorous witness against unlawful encroachments of local religious groups on the public school system." (50) A 1960 resolution restating opposition to public tax funds being used by sectarian schools (this time in the form of grants to assist nursing schools) was referred to the Public Affairs Committee. (51) Additional resolutions against the use of public tax funds for parochial schools or in support of religious organizations were approved by the SBCs of 1961 (especially vehement in its stance opposing attacks on "our public schools and the free institution of democracy"), (52) 1963 (to counter tax funds in support of capital expenditures at church-related schools and colleges), (53) 1965, (54) 1966, (55) 1967, (56) 1968, (57) 1970, (58) 1972, (59) 1974, (60) 1978, (61) 1981, (62) (with just over 41% voting in opposition to the resolution,) and 1983. (63)

However, by 1991, attitudes within the SBC had changed significantly. Couched in terms of "parental choice," an SBC resolution that year claimed that "Southern Baptists have always affirmed the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their religious convictions without governmental obstruction or interference," that "more and more Southern Baptist parents are concerned that their public school systems are increasingly hostile to Christian convictions," and that those parents "have felt the need to choose other avenues of instruction for their children, including private schools, Christian schools, and home instruction...." Though the statement acknowledged historical Baptist opposition to direct aid in support of churches, it resolved that the SBC "encourage choice in education initiatives which include proper tax incentives for families" that would still be "fully in keeping with First Amendment protections of religious liberty and prohibitions against any governmental establishment of religion." (64) A similar resolution was adopted by the 1996 SBC. This latter declaration again referred to the issue of parental responsibility, but as a "God-given right" and--omitting any reference to and showing no concern for issues of religious liberty, or non-establishment of religion, or separation of church and state, or the complexities related to these by the SBC's proposal--resolved "that we encourage our legislators, at all levels of government throughout our nation, to develop the means and methods of returning educational and funding choices to parents." (65)


Curricula and Textbooks

The aforementioned 1964 SBC resolution on "Religious Liberty" recognized that public officials were entitled to their own religious opinions, i.e., that they had the same right to the free exercise of religion as others. Nevertheless, "in applying this principle to the field of public education, we affirm the historic right of our schools to full academic freedom for the pursuit of all knowledge...." (66) However, this is not to say that the SBC remained disinterested in public school curricula, as is demonstrated in a 1975 resolution encouraging national and local vigilance on proposed curricula and textbooks. (67) The 1987 SBC went considerably further in a resolution, "On Textbook Censorship." This statement claimed that "Judeo-Christian values had a vital role in the founding of America, the formation of its institutions, and the making of its national character." It recognized that the "U.S. Supreme Court requires neutrality of religion in the public schools, not forbidding the teaching, of religion's role in history but forbidding the teaching of tenets," and resolved to pray for the correction of "the censored history of America's development [that which, in the 1987 SBC's opinion, had omitted the references to the role and contributions of the Judeo-Christian heritage as noted earlier in the resolution] and to encourage all Southern Baptists to stand against such censorship and encourage school boards not to adopt textbooks so censored. (68) A nearly identical resolution was adopted by the 1986 SBC. (69) (Yet another resolution, "On the Display of the Ten Commandments in Government Buildings," was adopted by the 1997 SBC and took a similar approach to history. (70))

A stance against a specific style or type of public school curriculum was taken by the 1994 SBC. That meeting adopted a resolution "On Outcome-Based Education." Reaffirming parents' primary role in educating their children, the statement opposed any form of Outcome-Based Education (OBE), listing its many manifestations, and claimed that OBE excluded Judeo-Christian values and de-emphasized "traditional academic instruction and reliance on basic academic skills," while "promoting multiculturalism, `politically correct' social values, and New Age philosophy." The statement resolved to "commend those educators who have maintained a faithful witness for biblical morality in our public schools" and to entreat parents to insist that school boards not "abandon traditional academic standards or community values in local schools." (71)

Bible Reading, Prayer, and Equal Access

Among the most widely misunderstood U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been those regarding Bible reading and prayer in public schools. While some believed (and still believe) the Court, in Engle v. Vitale (1962) and Abingdon School District v. Schempp (1963), had ruled against, respectively, prayer and Bible reading in public schools, the 1969 SBC recognized that such was not the case. That meeting adopted a resolution that the Court, in those two decisions, had "defined the meaning of establishment of religion and did not restrain the free exercise of personal religion, but restrained public officials from using their public office for promotion of religious experience." It encouraged local churches "to study carefully the contemporary applications of the First Amendment in the situation they face." (72) The 1971 SBC passed a resolution "On Voluntary Prayer" that reaffirmed the 1964 SBC's resolution "Religious Liberty, (73) and, though not specifically mentioning the public schools did address the issue of "the relationship between public agencies and the advancement of religion," maintained that "prayer is not a genuine response to God unless it is voluntary." It further encouraged churches to "teach their members the true nature of prayer" and encouraged "its constituency to participate in prayer experiences that are voluntary and uncoerced by governmental or ecclesiastical authorities." (74) The 1980 SBC echoed the sentiments of the 1969 and 1971 resolutions and opposed "attempts, either by law or other means, to circumvent the Supreme Court's decisions forbidding government authored or sponsored religious exercises in public schools." (75)

Just two years later, the SBC passed a resolution blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for "confusion as to the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution with regard to prayer in schools" and claimed that "public school officials and lower courts [had] frequently misinterpreted ... Supreme Court decisions as a ban on voluntary prayer." In its resolution "On Prayer in Schools," the SBC then expressed its support for a Constitutional amendment to supersede the First Amendment on the matter of prayer. (76)

Though not decrying the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions themselves, the 1986 SBC did pass a resolution condemning "interpretation of Supreme Court rulings which deny the right to voluntary prayer and Bible readings in the public schools." Pointing to guarantees of free exercise of religion, the resolution called on "state and local school boards, principals, teachers, and others in positions of authority to act as permitted by law and not to suppress or discourage the prayers and religious exercises of students. (77)

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Lee v. Wiseman, that faculty-initiated prayers in commencement ceremonies at public schools were unconstitutional. The same Court let stand an appeals court decision (in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District) that similar, but student-initiated and student-led prayers were not in violation of the First Amendment. In response, the 1993 SBC adopted a resolution ("On Accommodation of Religious Expression in Public Schools") that decried the Court's decision in Lee and commended its decision regarding Jones. The resolution described the Court's decision in Lee as a "lop-sided emphasis on `strict separation' rather than religious freedom." (78) A similar tone was taken in a 1995 SBC resolution "On a Constitutional Amendment Regarding Prayer and Religious Expression." (79)

The 1984 SBC expressed concern that "some student groups [had] been denied the right to assemble on public school premises solely on the basis of opposition to speech with religious content" when "non-religious groups [were] generally allowed to meet on public school premises." The resolution voiced approval of pending legislation in support of "equal access" and urged Baptist leaders and messengers to the convention to write the president and their representatives in both houses of Congress expressing similar endorsement and to urge others to do the same. (80) The Equal Access Act was passed later that year. The 1985 SBC noted the passage of the act and urged "Southern Baptists to work diligently for the education of our people for the purpose of understanding and implementing the provisions of the Equal Access Act for their communities." (81)

The 1992 SBC, however, was less pleased with the legal and Constitutional landscape in the wake of the Equal Access Act of 1984. In a resolution "On Free Exercise of Religion in Public Schools," the SBC observed that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld, in 1990, "the constitutional right of public high school students to initiate and lead prayer and Bible study groups before and after school if other non-curricular clubs are also permitted." On the other hand, the Court had also "indicated by recent decisions that the `strict separationist' doctrine which has dominated church-state philosophy and constitutional law for several decades may be giving way to an `accommodations' doctrine of religious expression in the public schools." Seemingly concerned that the Court's awareness of the latter would endanger what gains have been realized in the Equal Access Act, the SBC stated that the Act "more closely resembles religious toleration than religious liberty" and called for expansion of the Act "to maximize the free exercise rights of public school students." (82)


Consistency in expression and characterization of values has never been the strong suit of any human institution. Further, given the polity that distinguishes the Southern Baptist Convention, one should not be surprised to uncover inconsistencies within and among resolutions and statements adopted by the SBC in any given year and over any period of time.

Such disparity may be simply attributed to a failure to grasp the complexity of the issue at hand. This may be the simple explanation for the 1973 resolution "On the Lord's Day" and of the 1995 resolution calling for a new constitutional amendment which, at its best, is even more ambiguous than some claim the First Amendment to be, and, at its worst, opens the door for practices that have been recognized as establishment of religion and in violation of separation of church and state.

Incongruities also derive from shifts in one's vested interests. An example of this might be found in the change from opposing indirect aid to church-related schools in the 1940s (when the aid was in support of Catholic parochial schools and elementary and secondary schools run by Baptists were few) to advocating vouchers and/or tax credits in the 1980s and 1990s when Baptist church-run schools are much more numerous.

However, the ideological shifts revealed among the SBC resolutions identified in this paper are much more basic and significant than the above explanations might suggest. To understand the nature of the changes in SBC attitudes toward religious liberty and separation of church and state, one only need look to a former president of the SBC and current president of the SBC LifeWay Christian Resources (formerly the Baptist Sunday School Board), James T. Draper Jr. Draper once described a Fundamentalist: "He uses the Bible as a club with which to beat people over the head, rather than a means of personal strength and a revealer of God." (83) This could well demonstrate the motive behind the change obvious in the particular wording of the 1980 resolution calling for government by moral principles based on biblical authority and had the effect of calling for a religious test for elective office. This is in obvious contradiction to constitutional principles and a significant change from 1960 SBC Resolution No. 4, on "Christian Citizenship," that called for public officials to be free from the very pressures encouraged by the 1980 statement.

Earlier SBCs adopted resolutions that reflected, in both wording and content, the heritage of Southern Baptists' clear advocacy of separation of church and state as a vital component of religious liberty rooted in a concern the consciences of all people. However, in resolutions No. 12 of 1987 ("On Textbook Censorship"), No. 5 of 1992 ("On Free Exercise of Religion in Public Schools"), No. 6 of 1993 ("On Accommodation of Religious Expression in Public Schools," and No. 2 of 1995 ("On Religious Liberty and World Evangelization"), the SBC put its own spin on history, implied disdain for the concept of separation of church and state, and evidenced an additional turn from the SBC of earlier years: that of consideration for rights and consciences of others. The concern now seems to be only for the rights held by those who are in narrow agreement with their closely understood system of Baptist beliefs and values and their interpretation of Scripture. This is consistent with Draper's description of a Fundamentalist as one to whom:
 the test of fellowship is correct doctrine. If you do not agree with his
 doctrinal position, he writes you off and will not have fellowship with
 you. He assigns everyone else to heresy while he staunchly defends the
 faith.... He will never give anyone else a fair hearing.... Hatred,
 bitterness, and condemnation of all whom they despise [is the
 Fundamentalist tactic]. (84)

SBCs formerly seemed to exult in the challenge freedom offers to the church in those efforts: unencumbered by state "assistance" the church is at liberty to share an authentic gospel. Recently, however, a more coercive and strident flavor seems to seek every possible advantage and point of leverage. However well-intentioned this may be, as Draper wrote, "The bigotry and prejudice of the Fundamentalist has set back the work of missions around the world by at least fifty years." (85)

The ideological shifts brought about by the Fundamentalist takeover of the SBC have been significant and substantial, and they have drawn the SBC far from its roots. That much is obvious.

What is not so clear is whether the currents within the SBC are simply a part of a larger cultural shift and, if so, what role they are playing. That is, are they a driving force in cultural change or resulting from (or reacting to) it? Whatever the case, they threaten--to borrow from Draper--to set the cause of religious liberty back by many more than fifty years and to obfuscate some of the most significant advances and contributions of the historical Baptist witness.


Ronnie Prevost is professor, Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas.

(1.) George W. Truett, God's Call to America, ed. J. B. Cranfill (Nashville: The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1923), 43.

(2.) Billy Graham, "Why I Am a Baptist," in Why I Am a Baptist, compiled by Joe T. Odle (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), 18.

(3.) Robert G. Lee, "Why I Am a Baptist," ibid., 21.

(4.) Edgar Young Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), 196.

(5.) Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 3rd ed. (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1950), 33.

(6.) Excerpted from William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959), 140.

(7.) Truett, 38-39.

(8.) Ibid., 35.

(9.) Ibid., 19.

(10.) Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville: Convention Press, 1971), 141.

(11.) Herschel H. Hobbs, "The People Called Baptists: Whence, Who, What, Whither," in The Fibers of Our Faith, Vol. 1, edited by Dick Allen Rader (Franklin, Tenn.: Providence House Publishers, 1995), 20.

(12.) J. D. Grey, "The Contributions of Baptists to Religious Freedom," ibid., 114-15.

(13.) Mullins, Axioms, 199.

(14.) Ibid., 197.

(15.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1946, 119.

(16.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1957, 62.

(17.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1959, 78-79.

(18.) Resolution No. 4, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1960, 71.

(19.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1960, 71.

(20.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1964, 80.

(21.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1995, 89-90.

(22.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1975, 68.

(23.) Resolution No. 19, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1980, 52.

(24.) Resolution No. 10, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1981, 52.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Resolution No. 11, ibid.

(27.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1940, 97.

(28.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1952, 54.

(29.) Resolution No. 7, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1965, 89.

(30.) Ibid., 90.

(31.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1986, 67.

(32.) Resolution No. 7, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1962,77.

(33.) Resolution No. 8, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1973, 84.

(34.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1981, 48.

(35.) Resolution No. 8, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1978, 55.

(36.) Resolution No. 7, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1977, 49.

(37.) Resolution No. 3, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1991, 75.

(38.) Resolution No. 7, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1975, 74.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1994, 107.

(41.) Resolution No. 1, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1997, 89.

(42.) Recommendation No. 13, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1976, 37.

(43.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1977, 49.

(44.) Resolution No. 8, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1985, 84.

(45.) Resolution No. 3, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1986, 67.

(46.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1947, 42-43.

(47.) Ibid., 50.

(48.) Ibid., 41.

(49.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1948, 52.

(50.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1953, 57.

(51.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1960, 72.

(52.) Resolution No. 1, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1961, 80-81.

(53.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1963, 60.

(54.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1965, 87.

(55.) Resolution No. 3, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1966, 92-93.

(56.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1967, 74.

(57.) Resolution No. 8, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1968, 79.

(58.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1970, 79.

(59.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1972, 75.

(60.) Resolution No. 14, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1974, 77.

(61.) Resolution No. 18, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1978, 67.

(62.) Resolution No. 10, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1981, 56.

(63.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1983, 63.

(64.) Resolution No. 8, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1991, 81-82.

(65.) Resolution No. 9, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1996, 96.

(66.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1964, 80.

(67.) Resolution No. 13, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1975, 76.

(68.) Resolution No. 12, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1987, 67.

(69.) Resolution No. 7, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1986, 75.

(70.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1997, 94.

(71.) Resolution No. 10, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1994, 109-110.

(72.) Resolution No. 11, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1969, 76.

(73.) Resolution No. 2, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1964, 80.

(74.) Resolution No. 8, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1971, 78.

(75.) Resolution No. 13, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1980, 49.

(76.) Resolution No. 9, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1982, 58.

(77.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1986, 75.

(78.) Resolution No. 6, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1993, 101.

(79.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1995, 92-93.

(80.) Resolution No. 4, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1981, 60.

(81.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1985, 83.

(82.) Resolution No. 5, Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1992, 88.

(83.) James T. Draper Jr., The Church Christ Approves (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974), 39.

(84.) Ibid., 39-43.

(85.) Ibid., 41.
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Title Annotation:Southern Baptist Convention
Author:Prevost, Ronnie
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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