"A Flaming Torch"
By Walter B. Shurden
An Address Presented at
The Religious Liberty Council Luncheon
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly
most memorable moment at a meeting of the General Assembly of the Cooperative
Baptist Fellowship came at the
that mesmerizing, rhythmical cadence where tone is so powerful that it almost
obscures content, he was reminding us that the Nazi triumph occurred in one of
the most enlightened, most theological, most intellectual, and most cultural
Proctor sat down because he knew that we could complete the story. He knew that
we knew that with the “paper hanger” came deep, dark things in
BLIND MIXING OF CHURCH AND STATE
But we must never forget that there was also great darkness for Christ’s Church. That Body of Christ, transcending all principalities and powers, got all tangled up in what was called the “myth of blood and soil.” And some, within the church, interpreted the myth as light. But it proved to be a very deep darkness. They called it “German Nationalism,” but it was really manic patriotism, a knee-jerk devotion to a fourth rate God, born of fear. And then many of the Christians took off and started calling themselves “German Christians.” But all the pathos and the passion fell on the first rather than the second word. They were Germans who happened to be Christians rather than Christians who happened to be Germans. They proudly flung swastika across Christ’s altar. Good people, Christian people, people like you are, got blinded by the darkness; they were fearful of the light. They no longer knew their real Fuehrer.
Let me be clear at the outset. I am not suggesting that we are on the lip of any kind of political totalitarianism in this country. I don’t believe that.
I am suggesting, however, that there are “American Christians” for whom the adjective is more important than the noun.
I am suggesting that some Christian churches in our country have been transformed into political temples and some pastors have embraced the moniker of “patriot pastors.”
I am suggesting that devoted theocrats have an eye on the machinery of national and state governments, and that they make no apology for it.
I am suggesting that a skewed reading of our nation’s history is sending forth
armies of buck privates scurrying to wreck
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE
many blithely say, “It can’t happen here.” The last time I heard that was in a
hotel lobby in
“But we have a Constitution that makes things clear,” so it cannot happen here.
“We have a Bill of Rights and the First Amendment that makes things even clearer.”
“Our national pluralism will not permit it to happen here.”
And in an otherwise beautiful and provocative book, American Gospel, Jon Meacham optimistically forecasts that it cannot happen here because of the existence of a sane middle in American life that will not permit it to happen here.
IT CAN HAPPEN HERE
Let me tell you why I believe it can happen here, this idolatrous mixing of church and state.
can happen here because “Generation Joshua” is loose in our country. Have you
heard of “Generation Joshua?” It is an effort by Michael Farris, founder of
Patrick Henry College, to turn Christian home schooled students into political
foot soldiers to gain political power in order to subsume everything— entertainment, law, government, and
education— under their right wing version of Christianity. Like Joshua of the Hebrew
Bible, Generation Joshua’s job is to possess the land, to conquer the land, or,
in the words of the religious right, “to take back the land.” And, according to Michael Harris, in the
spring semester of 2004
can happen here because by 2004 The Christian Coalition gave 42 out of 100
can happen here because a recent survey of 100,000 high school students in
I do not trivialize my dear friend Grady Nutt’s death by saying to you that, 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 in the middle of the night 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. 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.
friends, we are talking about my grandchildren’s future here! This is
And the situation differs little among many in our Baptist denomination. I am 69 years old. I have been in the ministry since I was 18 years old. The math is easy. 18 from 69 is a half century plus. 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, and celebrating with them the principles for which they have stood.
And here’s the truth if I have ever told it: 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 who had been to Baptist Training Union and studied just a tad of the Baptist heritage.
But not today! Today you preach a sermon on absolute religious liberty for all people . . . preach a sermon on the real implications of genuine separation of church and state . . . preach a sermon 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.
But 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 all religious groups may have freedom in this country but Christianity stands in an historically privileged position in the eyes of the government, and
● if you preach that our nation is going to hell in a hand basket because of a judiciary that does not acknowledge our Christian values and symbols and,
● if you say that there is a methodical and carefully designed war on Christians in American society,
● and if you preach that this country has always been a Christian nation but is now losing it moorings, . . .
● if that’s what you tell them at on Sunday morning, sanctuary electricity will become sanctuary applause!
It can happen here because many Baptists, of all God’s people, have lost their way.
WHY WE MUST HAVE THE BJC
And that, my friends, is why the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is essential to our life together. The BJC is one year older than I.
So all of my life, the BJC has been telling us that one of the ways in which we love God is to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” One of the ways we love God is to defend fair play and equality in American religious life, says the BJC.
All of my life the BJC has been helping the Kingdom Of God to gain ground by trying to convince churches that they are stronger on their own than when leaning on Caesar.
All of my life the BJC has passionately reminded Baptists of a noble heritage that celebrates rather than emasculates separation of church and state.
All of my life the BJC has been preaching what Baptists have preached from their beginning: freedom of conscience is God’s Will for creation!
A FLAMING TORCH
biblical image that comes to me when I think of the BJC is that Flaming Sword
that God fixed on that wall in Genesis 3.
I like to think of the BJC, not as a sword, a weapon of war, but as a
kind of Flaming Torch, a Flaming Torch for Freedom and
MEASURE MY WORDS WHEN I SAY THAT I
believe with all my heart and soul that one of the most important religious
organizations in this republic is the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious
Liberty. One of the reasons I have always admired the BJC is its ecumenical
nature. The BJC is not simply a Baptist
thing. The BJC is a human thing. It does not matter whether you are Baptist or
Buddhist, Methodist or Muslim, Assembly of God or atheist, the BJC is a flaming
torch guarding God-given freedoms for your children and grandchildren. I wish
you could have heard Rabbi David Saperstein this past spring at
And I sincerely believe that the BJC is needed more today than at any time in its history. MORE THAN AT ANY TIME SINCE ITS FOUNDING! It started in 1936, but it is needed more today than in 1936 or 1946 or 1956 or 1966 or any other decade!
No battle stays won! If we don’t keep a sickle in our hands the garden of freedom will be overtaken by the weeds of religious discrimination. The BJC is our sickle for beating back the weeds of encroachment of church on state and state on church.
I think of the BJC this way. Every time Brent Walker answers the phone at the BJC and helps someone understand the arcane issues of church and state, he has just answered the phone for meand you!
Every time Holly Hollman or Brent Walker or any other staff member writes an article to clarify the weighty issues of politics and piety, they have just written that article for meand for you!
Every time I have watched James Dunn and Brent Walker testify on television before a congressional hearing on issues of separation of church and state, I have thought that they testified for meand you!
now the BJC is in a campaign to build a Center for Religious Liberty in
First, make a personal gift. Every one of us in this room has a church or an educational institution or a ministry of some kind that demands our full attention and most of our money. I understand our loyalties to those ministries. But my friends, we have only one Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. I implore you to rededicate yourselves to religious freedom and the separation of religion and government and the mission of the BJC. I ask you to join Kay and me in helping to build a Center for Religious Liberty in the most powerful political city on the planet. Do something great big for your children and grandchildren! Leave part of your money to the BJC!
each of us here knows people who need a place to park their money for the the
several years ago, when “Honk, if you love Jesus” was on every other car bumper
Would you, please? PUSH for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty!
 Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation
Michael Farris, The Joshua Generation