A just-published book celebrates the life and work of James M. Dunn, an influential Baptist leader who has dedicated much of his career to defending church-state separation.
Dunn, a former vice president of the Americans United Board of Trustees, is the focus of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom by Aaron Douglas Weaver. Weaver, a doctoral candidate in religion, politics and society at Baylor University, writes for the moderate Baptist publication Baptists Today and blogs at a site called thebigdaddyweave.com.
Weaver provides a brief overview of Dunn’s upbringing but focuses mostly on his work in Southern Baptist circles to defend religious liberty. The Southern Baptist Convention fell under the control of a fundamentalist faction in the 1980s, but Dunn remained true to the denomination’s historic stand in favor of church-state separation,.
From 1981-99, Dunn served as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC). In that position, he rallied Baptists of many denominational stripes to resist the fundamentalist onslaught and promote church-state separation. He currently oversees the BJC’s endowment fund and also serves as a professor of Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
On the day he took over the leadership of the BJC, Dunn vowed to put forth an “aggressive, broad-based” approach to church-state issues. Never reluctant to take on the Religious Right, Dunn blasted efforts to mix religion and politics.
“God is minimized in any marriage of religion and politics,” Dunn declared. “We wind up making God the national mascot, and that’s civil religion at its worst.”
When President Ronald W. Reagan announced plans to introduce a school prayer amendment in 1982, Dunn was quick to respond.
“It is despicable demagoguery for the president to play petty politics with prayer,” Dunn asserted. “He knows that the Supreme Court never banned prayer in schools. It can’t. Real prayer is always free.”
Dunn also opposed plans by Reagan to give tax support to religious schools. In addition, he opposed Reagan’s proposal to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
Dunn’s stand against Reagan’s prayer amendment infuriated Southern Baptist fundamentalists, and they engineered a vote to cut off denominational subsidies for the BJC. The loss of funding hit the BJC hard, but Dunn guided the group through this rocky period. The organization, now headed by the Rev. Brent Walker, often works with Americans United to defend church-state separation.
Now 79 years old, Dunn continues to advocate for freedom of conscience.
PBS commentator Bill Moyers, a friend of Dunn’s, calls James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom “an important book on a true Baptist hero.”
The book is published by Smith & Helwys in Macon, Ga. For more information, visit helwys.com.