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by Walter B. Shurden

Professor of Christianity and Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University

Delivered at the


Sponsored by Associated Baptist Press, Baptist Joint Committee, and Baptists Today

First Baptist Church, Washington, DC

14 April 2005


            The text for this conference and for the entire First Freedoms Project is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Ratified as the law of the land on December 15, 1791, the First Amendment goes like this:

            “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press: or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”           

            Those forty-five words contain a radical commitment to five freedoms for an open society: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government.

            So, why should a group of Baptists, of all religious denominations in America, sponsor a First Freedoms Project, anyway? Because, if Brent Walker is even in the ball park─if Brent Walker is even in the NEIGHBORHOOD of the ball park!─in his jarring assessment that the First Amendment would not pass if put for vote to the American public today, the spirit of the First Amendment is neck-deep in trouble.

            A recent study bears out Brent Walker’s terribly dark assessment. A survey of 100,000 high school students in America concluded that one out of three students believes that the First Amendment goes TOO FAR in the rights it guarantees![1] That last sentence ought to be absolutely horrendous to your ears. In fact, that sentence reminds me of a phone call we got about 12:30 one night when we were living in Louisville, KY. The call was from Wayne Dehoney, pastor of Walnut Street Baptist Church in the city. He said, “Walter, this is Wayne Dehoney, I just received a call from Cullman, AL, and Grady Nutt was killed in a plane crash tonight. I knew that you were close friends, so I am calling to tell you.” I remember saying in stunned shock and disbelief, “Wayne, you are going to have to say that again.” He said, “I understand.” And then he said once more, “I received a call from Cullman, AL and Grady Nutt was killed in an airplane crash tonight.”

            If you hear it carefully, the sentence about the high school students and the First Amendment has all the tone and sound of a death announcement about someone you love. So I want to repeat it, slowly, so that it will sink in: ONE IN THREE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS IN THIS REPUBLIC SAYS THAT THE FIRST AMENDMENT OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES GOES TOO FAR IN THE RIGHTS IT GUARANTEES TO YOU AS A CITIZEN!

            The survey did not end there, however. It contained more surprises. For example, nearly three fourths say either they don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or they take it for granted. More shocking still, only one-half of the students surveyed said that a newspaper should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

            My friends, we are talking about my grandchildren’s future here! This is America’s tomorrow speaking! One third of them want the freedoms of the First Amendment curbed. And one half of them want newspapers to secure government approval for their stories!! These are astonishing and inconceivable attitudes for high school students in the United States of America. This survey is a terrible, scary phone call in the middle of the night about what has happened in our nation.

            And the situation differs little among many in our Baptist denomination. And this, also, is a major reason for the First Freedoms Project. I am 68 years old. I have been in the ministry since I was 18 years old. The math is easy. 18 from 68 is 50. For a full half century now, I have been roaming the Baptist yard, mostly in the white Baptist yard of the South to be sure, loving and being loved by Baptist people, observing Baptist practices and preaching, celebrating with them the principles for which they have stood, and studying, teaching, writing, and preaching our Baptist heritage.         

            And here’s the truth: When I entered the Baptist ministry as a youngster in 1955, and for at least 30 years afterward, if you preached a sermon in a Baptist church on the separation of church and state and religious liberty or freedom of conscience, you would have them snoring in their pews in a matter of minutes! The Benediction became wake-up time. All of that “freedom stuff” enshrined in the First Amendment was old hat to Baptist folk back then.

            But not today! Today you preach a sermon on absolute religious liberty for all people, on genuine separation of church and state, on freedom of conscience and freedom of the press, and you will begin to feel “sanctuary electricity.” “Sanctuary electricity” is when the preacher viscerally knows that the right button has just been hit. Negative energy begins to flow in the room, and it showers the pulpit.

            To the contrary,

                        if you preach a sermon in many Baptist churches today and say, so as to reinforce their prejudices, that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution,  and

                        if you preach that the First Amendment has been misinterpreted and taken too far, and

                        if you preach that certain religious groups in this country need to conform to our particular religious customs, and

                        if you preach that our nation is going to hell in a hand basket because of a judiciary that does not acknowledge our particular theological values and symbols and, 

                        and if you preach a distorted historical interpretation that this country has always been a Christian nation but is now losing it moorings,  . . .

                        if that’s what you tell them at 11:00 on Sunday morning, sanctuary electricity will become sanctuary applause.

So what has happened to Baptists regarding the First Amendment?


            I.  Among other things we Baptists have distinguished ourselves by neglect of our own heritage. The understanding of Baptist history for many Baptists goes all the way back to the last resolution adopted at the last meeting of their particular Baptist convention. Candidly, we are an historically illiterate people. Unanchored, we float with the prevailing political and religious culture. And we float, unanchored, because we do not know the Baptist story.

            Except for a small minority, our Baptist people simply do not know our heritage. And while it may be a waste of time, we must plead and beg in the First Freedoms Project for the Baptist people to take some time simply to read our stories. For example, few Baptists know the story of Dr. John Clarke of Rhode Island, a physician who worked on the soul of a sick society as well as the bodies of sick people.

            Who was John Clarke? Well, put it this way: if Billy Graham was the most influential Baptist in 20th century America, John Clarke was the single most influential Baptist of seventeenth century America. He was just that big in our denominational story.

In 1652 John Clarke wrote the single most important Baptist book of seventeenth century America. It was one of the earliest Baptist classics. He called it Ill Newes from New England. Ill Newes [2] was a seventeenth century bugle blast for a radical form religious freedom that would scare the daylights out of some Baptists today. It was a fervent call for the First Amendment one hundred and forty years before the First Amendment.

Why did Clarke write it? He wrote it because he and two other men violated the laws of Massachusetts by attempting to hold a Baptist worship service at a blind preacher’s house in the town of Lynn. They were arrested, sent to a Boston prison, and one of his friends, Obadiah Holmes, was whipped on the streets of Boston. Clarke, writing from prison, pled for the Puritan establishment to afford him free speech. He asked them to debate him on the issues of separation of church and state and liberty of conscience. When they refused, he promptly wrote Ill Newes from New England and sent it to the Parliament of Old England. He was trying to marshal all the powers of Old England against the abuses of conscience in New England.

Ill Newes is important for Baptists in contemporary America for many reasons. Read Ill Newes carefully, and then read some of the legislation proposed in this city and in state capitols around this country today and you may want to write a sequel to John Clarke’s work. You could call it Ill Newes from Twenty-First Century America.

            With age, we Baptists have developed cataracts. Our denominational vision, once crystal clear on First Amendment issues, today is opaque. Impervious to the light of our denominational history and family commitments, we have blocked out heroic chapters of our very own story. I discovered that our word “cataract” comes from a Greek word kataraktes that comes from two other words, one of which means “down” and the other means “to fall” or “headlong.”  These denominational cataracts that have accompanied our Baptist aging have caused us as a people to fall headlong down from the vision of freedom that once possessed us and that we proudly owned. We no longer see clearly on First Amendment issues, because we have lost our theological vision that God built freedom into the fabric of the universe.

            Part of the reason for the cloudy vision is that today the issues appear in more civil, more subtle, and more ambiguous ways. Just listen to the language:  “faith based charity.” “Faith”? What’s to oppose there? “Charity” Who can be against that?  “Prayer in public schools.” Well, what is prayer going to hurt? Why not? “The posting of the ten commandments!” What can that possibly hurt? “Vouchers for taxpayers.” Is that not the fair thing? “What’s the big deal with these harmless efforts?”ordinary Baptists ask. The big deal is that these represent Ill Newes From Twenty-First Century America. And they represent Ill Newes for both religion and government.

            We now have Baptist politicians who get elected to public office by minimizing the separation of church and state and maximizing the claim that this is a Christian nation. When they do want to demonstrate their commitment to a belief in First Amendment pluralism, they refer to this republic, expansively in their minds, as a Judeo-Christian nation, forgetting all other devout religionists and those with no religion at all.  “If they don’t like America the way it is, let them leave,” is the way I heard it from one Baptist layperson, which may have been the exact sentiment of the Native Americans who saw us stepping on shore! It was precisely the sentiment that the Puritans and Anglicans had toward Baptists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

            My hope for the First Freedoms Project is that it will reclaim the Baptist people for the Baptist heritage, that it will cause us to rededicate ourselves to the conviction that FREEDOM goes to the very essence of our theology and identity. Freedom is at the heart of our Baptist DNA.

            The Baptist affirmation of freedom is not simply an American ideal that we happened to embrace. For us, freedom is spiritual before it is political; it is theological before it is cultural; it was a part of the Baptist Enlightenment before there was an Age of Enlightenment.

            Quite simply, freedom of conscience is the will of God for the Baptist heritage. Long before freedom of conscience was central to being an American citizen, it was at the core of what it meant to be Baptist.

            I hope the First Freedoms Project will act as a catalyst on our churches, a catalyst that will cause them to tell our denominational story. And it is a denominational story marinated in the love of freedom that precedes the First Amendment.


            II. A number of other things have happened to Baptists and the First Amendment. We have, for example, run upon some competition every bit as tough as the seventeenth century Puritans and eighteenth century Anglicans. We have run upon a stubborn secularism and also upon a baffling pluralism. Each engenders fear. And fear is the dominant emotion of our time. Fear goes a long way in explaining the timidity regarding the five freedoms of the First Amendment. When people really find out what the First Amendment says, like those high school students, their desire for security outruns their thirst for freedom!

            Just a very brief word about secularism. Secularism frightens many of the religious among us.  And, quite frankly, no devout person of faith, regardless of the religious tradition, can be without some sympathies for that sentiment.  Secularism is as much a world view as any religion. It frightens. Many religious Americans, or so it seems to me, are fearful of the very same thing that some Muslims in the East are fearful of: a pervasive secularism that not only changes the religious environment but abolishes it. I understand that. It is ironic, however, that some of the same Americans who desperately want Iraq and Iran to establish secular republics want the Congress of the United States to legislate a “Judeo-Christian Nation.” And Baptists of that persuasion need some old fashioned, aisle-walking, altar-bumping, heart-rending rededication to the passions and principles of our ancestors, especially as those principles touch on the First Amendment. Historically, Baptists have been willing to take on secularism in the free market of ideas. And they have done it with confidence. They have done it with success. And they have done it without the aid and assistance of government. 

            Moreover, we Baptists, like all religious Americans, have also had to confront in the last forty or fifty years a growing and baffling religious pluralism in this country. The flood gates of religious diversity opened in 1965 with the Immigration and Naturalization Act. And so we now have, as Diana Eck said in the title of her important 2001 book, A New Religious America,[3] a religious America more divers than our ancestors could ever have imagined.

            Look at what’s happened to us. During the colonial period we Protestants, except for Native Americans, had about the only game in the land. Protestants, therefore, feared Protestants. Religious prejudice ensued. Then came the Irish and Italian Catholics with their rosaries and names ending in “a” and “i.” Now Protestants feared Catholics. Religious prejudice ensued. But while some Protestants refused to acknowledge Catholicism as a bona fide expression of the Christian faith, the Catholic masses simply could not be ignored. So Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, combined to form a shaky religious alliance, and, retained, for some people at least, the language that America was a “Christian” nation. Then the Jews, the Christians’ cousins, came ashore. Now Protestants and Catholics feared Jews. Religious prejudice ensued. Eventually, we found new language. We were now a “Judeo Christian nation.”

            But today, we confront names that we cannot pronounce and religious traditions about which we know next to nothing. So how do we self-describe religious America today? Listen to our language and you will discern our prejudices. Listen to our language and you will understand the limitations we place on the First Amendment.

            I believe that Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, is correct when he says that “globalization is summoning the world’s great faiths to a supreme challenge.” And that supreme challenge comes in the form of a question: “Can we recognize God’s image in one who is not in my image?”[4] That question, precisely because of the First Amendment, will become more relevant in America than any country in the world.

                What do Baptists, that small and noisy band of only one segment of only one of the world’s great religions, bring to the table of interfaith dialogue? Do we Baptists have anything at all of value to say? I think so, and I believe that Baptist theologian Charles Kimball said much of it back in 2002 in his deservedly popular book, When Religion Becomes Evil. [5]

                I always thought it instructive to turn Kimball’s title on its head and to read his book from the point of view of When Religion Becomes Healthy. For while Kimball described some “evil” characteristics of religion in his book, he also inevitably sketched the outline of “good,” “positive,” and “healthy” religion. In his closing chapter he said, "As we have explored each of the warning signs of corrupted religion, we have seen how correctives were always present within each tradition. Our study of the pathological has helped to elucidate the healthy” (187). I fear this healthy dimension of religion in Kimball’s book was overlooked. What does religion look like when it becomes healthy? Listen for echoes of the First Amendment as I serve up quotations from Kimball.

                1. Kimball said, “Freedom of religion is a good thing. So is freedom from the religion others may wish to impose on those who differ” (25). Healthy religion is religion free from coercion. And there is the Baptist tradition!

            2. Kimball said, “The uncritical mixing of religious, political, military, and economic realms in the missionary conquests . . . contradicts the cherished principle of the separation of church and state” (63). Healthy religion advocates some separation between religion and government. And there is the Baptist tradition!

                3. Kimball said, “. . . blind obedience is a sure sign of corrupt religion. Beware of any religious movement that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents. When individual believers abdicate personal responsibility and yield to the authority of a charismatic leader or become enslaved to particular ideas or teachings, religion can easily become the framework for violence and destruction” (72). Healthy religion protects and affirms the conscience of the individual. And there is the Baptist Tradition!

            4. Kimball said of the religious sect that released deadly nerve gas in sixteen Tokyo subway stations in 1995,  that it “provided little room for independent opinions or debate among adherents” (82). Healthy religion provides not only for independent opinions but for “debate among adherents.” And there is the Baptist Tradition!

Do you understand why I once told Charles Kimball that I thought he was unaware of how Baptist a book he had written? We Baptists, though often perceived as excessively sectarian and fundamentalist, bring a wealth of ideas to the world of religious pluralism. And the freedom that we bring to the table doe s not cancel the faith we tenaciously hold.   



            When William Carey wrote his famous essay that catapulted Baptists into the arena of world missions, he had three “p’s” that Baptists had to heed. Carey said that Baptists had to plan, to pray, and to pay in order to form a world mission enterprise. We must do at least that much--- plan, pray, and pay--- to support the First Freedoms Project and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. But let me try to be a bit more specific.

            First, we can and we must teach our Baptist stories. Baptists can find salvation from fear in our own stories, stories of John Clarke and Roger Williams and Thomas Gould and William Screven and Isaac Backus and John Leland. And I am convinced that we must find some way to teach those stories to the under 40 age group. The place to start is not in adult seminars on Sunday evenings where the only ones present are those who grew up on Baptist Training Union and already believe what we are saying. The place to start is in Vacation Bible Schools and Youth Sunday Schools. We need curriculum materials for our young people, and I am glad to say that some progress is being made here. We need more, however. We need a Vacation Bible School curriculum called “The First Freedoms Project.” Is there a publisher in the sound of my voice?  

            Second, we can and we must support school boards that work to uphold the First Amendment in the face of enormous pressures. Why, we could even start a campaign to post  the Ten Amendments, the Bill of Rights, in the school houses and courthouses of this country. And then we could support a corresponding campaign to post the Ten Commandments in the church houses and the synagogues of the land where they rightfully belong.

            Third, Carey was right. We must ante up. We must dig deep to support those good organizations such as the Baptist Joint Committee, Baptists Today, and the Associated Baptist Press who are seeking to educate our churches and our citizens. Bruce Prescott gave good advice when he said that a good rule of thumb for conscientious stewardship is that if the people asking for your money do not support liberty of conscience then they don’t deserve your money. Some historically informed Baptists need to “park” some of God’s money at the doorsteps of the First Freedoms Project. Do you have some of that money?

            Four, we can read and stay informed.  Have you noticed that each of the three organizations sponsoring the First Freedoms Project is in the information business? They and many others provide more than we can read on issues of religion’s relationship to government. Freedom of the press is crucial to them and to us.

            Five, and finally, and maybe more important than anything else that can be said, we can approach the task with the passion that it demands. I believe that in the great moral struggles of human history passion wins. Like you, I believe that this is a moral universe and that truth and justice are built-in components of our world. I do not believe, however, that truth and justice always prevail. And I certainly do not believe that truth and justice prevail unassisted. Truth and justice triumph only when passionate people act passionately about issues of truth and justice. The First Amendment is a justice issue.

            The Baptist battle cry for religious freedom and separation of church and state eventually prevailed in America because veins in Baptist necks bulged red at the thought of ANY kind of religious discrimination. Truth and justice needed friends. Baptists, along with Quakers, Presbyterians, and some level headed secularists, befriended truth and justice.

            What would happen today if Baptists---fundamentalist Baptists, liberal Baptists, conservative Baptists, and moderate Baptists, black Baptists and white Baptists and ethnic Baptists of all kinds---what would happen if those Baptists acted out of their heritage and recovered the unmitigated passion that characterized our humble ancestors for the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? Here is what would happen.

            We would demand that the freedom that we passionately won for ourselves be gladly granted to all people, not simply to people like ourselves.  

            We would demand that Caesar not make an establishment of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” or, worse, of one narrow theological interpretation of the Christian faith.

            We would remind our fellow citizens that this really is a secular republic, not a theocratic state.    

            We would implore churches to keep their hands out of Caesar’s trough for dollars to supplement Christ’s ministry.

            We would ask churches to look at those countries with established religions and see how  long it takes to find a vital and vibrant faith. I believe for a number of reasons that Baptists have been right to insist that religious faith must be voluntary and freely chosen, but one of the major reasons I believe that is because voluntarism creates vital churches and vital faith. 

            Someone asked Helen Keller if anything was worse than losing one’s sight. “Yes,” she said, “losing one’s vision.”  We Baptists have work to do to keep the vision alive that birthed us, that gave us our very existence, and that gave us a place of respect in American society.  We have a magnanimous vision. It is a vision that transcends us. It is no navel-gazing, self-fixated vision, but a vision that includes the freedom of all people. It is a theological vision that intersects and reinforces those 45 words and five freedoms of the First Amendment.

            One way to sin is to go limp, to avoid responsibility, to play dead, to lose our passion for preeminent principles.[6] Being “moderate” will not win the minds of the American people for the First Amendment. For me, one of the saddest lines in all of Holy Scripture comes from the little fellow with the one talent: “I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

            Fear loses. Passion wins.


[1] See “The Future of the First Amendment: What America’s High School Students Think about Their Freedoms” posted on 12 April 2005 at <>.

[2]  For a copy of Clarke’s classic, see Colonial Baptists: Massachusetts and Rhode Island (New York: Arno Press, A New York Times Company, 1980). For information email or go to < The mailing address is 1 Lower Mill Rd., North Stratford, NH 03590.

[3]  Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously ' Nation (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

[4]  Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, revised edition (London/New York, Continuum, 2003) p. 17.

[5]  Charles L. Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002).

[6] For an elaboration of this kind of sinning, see Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995) 187.