When I began working for Americans United in 1987, one thing confused me: Why were there so many Southern Baptists hanging around?
Southern Baptists were the enemy – or so I thought. After all, they were extremely conservative and always advocating things like school prayer amendments and anti-LGBT legislation.
Then, a diminutive man in a bow tie named James M. Dunn set me straight. Sure, some Southern Baptists – the fundamentalists – do those things, he explained, but lots of other Baptists are much more moderate and hew to a proud Baptist tradition of religious liberty for all undergirded by the separation of church and state.
James introduced me to great Baptist heroes like John Leland, Isaac Backus and Thomas Helwys. My work at Americans United was enriched because I had the privilege of knowing James Dunn.
Dr. Dunn, who died July 4 at age 83, served as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) from 1981-99. During that period, he was in the thick of several church-state battles.
When President Ronald Reagan began pushing a school prayer amendment, James was there to stand up and explain why authentic prayer and faith can never be legislated by government. Some years later, in the mid-1990s, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) introduced an even more far-reaching “religious freedom” amendment that would have mixed up church and state like a salad. James again raced to the ramparts and played a leading role in that misguided measure’s defeat.
James opposed government funding of religious institutions, vouchers and “faith-based” initiatives. He was a colorful character who never hesitated to speak his mind. When Al Gore, while running for president in 2000, announced his support for faith-based funding, Dunn, who knew Gore personally and considered him a friend, wrote an open letter to the vice president that began, “Dear Mr. Vice President, I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, you’ve ripped your britches.”
Dr. Dunn served for nearly 20 years on Americans United’s Board of Trustees, including a stint as board vice president. When he retired from the BJC in 1999, we knew he wouldn’t just fade away. James wasn’t that kind of guy. Sure enough, Dr. Dunn decamped to Wake Forest University’s divinity school in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he taught classes in Christianity and public policy. You can bet that his students learned the real story of church-state separation in America.
James Dunn led a rich and full life. It was a life that meant something because it was dedicated to one of our most important principles – freedom of conscience. I am a better and more effective advocate for this cause because of what I learned from Dr. Dunn. And I’m not the only one who can say that. Pulpits and classrooms across this nation are sprinkled with clergy and teachers who studied under Dunn and were mentored by him. (In 2011, Aaron Douglas Weaver, a doctoral student at Baylor University, published a book about Dunn titled James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom, which Bill Moyers of PBS lauded as “an important book on a true Baptist hero.”)
Among my prized possessions is a hand-written note from Dunn dated Oct. 28, 2013. He had brought some students to Washington, D.C., and asked me to speak to them. He thanked me for my time and added that he was pleased to know that advocates at Americans United would continue this work because, “I’m aware that I’ll not be able to keep it up many more years.”
How do you memorialize a man like that? Here’s one thought: You take the ideas and principles he stood for, dedicate yourself anew to them and work for them even harder.
That is precisely what I intend to do.