Evangelical Scholar Calls For ‘Watchmen’ On The Church-State Wall

An evangelical Christian scholar gave an impassioned speech recently in which he urged “true Baptists” to rediscover their roots and once again become “watchmen on the wall of separation between church and state.”

Randall Balmer, a professor of history at Columbia University, addressed a June 29 event sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) in Washington, D.C.

Balmer, author of the recent book Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament, said too many Baptists in America have “lost their way,” and he criticized their support for the Religious Right.

“They have been seduced by leaders of the Religious Right into thinking that the way to advance the gospel in this country is to abandon Baptist principles,” Balmer said.

The Associated Baptist Press reported that Balmer listed as an example support for Roy Moore, former Alabama chief justice. Moore lost his spot on the bench after he defied a federal court order to remove a massive Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.

“Why not post the Decalogue in public places?” asked Balmer. “Because, quite simply, it trivializes the faith and makes the Ten Commandments into a fetish. What Roy Moore was peddling was idolatry, pure and simple – a conflation of the gospel with the American political order.”

Balmer also criticized the Religious Right for its partisanship.

“The identification of the Religious Right with the Republican Party has deprived the faith of its prophetic voice,” he said. “Where are the Baptist voices of conscience decrying this administration’s immoral war in Iraq, the relentless assault on civil liberties and the abomination of torture?

“In too many cases,” Balmer continued, “the answer is that those voices have been co-opted by the promise – often the mirage – of access to political power. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Religious Right has abandoned the faith for a conference call with Karl Rove in return.”

Baptists worked with Enlightenment-era thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to build the church-state wall in the post-Revolutionary period. But the Southern Baptist Convention, now under the sway of fundamentalists, has abandoned its support for church-state separation and works with the Religious Right.

Balmer called on Baptists to return to their roots.

“Every true Baptist understands that any attempt to baptize the faith with the imprimatur of the state…ultimately diminishes the integrity of the faith,” the scholar said. “I’m asking Baptists to reaffirm their heritage.”

Earlier that day, pro-separation Baptists gathered near the U.S. Capitol to commemorate a famous speech on religious liberty delivered in 1920 by Baptist minister George Truett.

Two members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Robert Scott (D-Va.), spoke.

Edwards, remarking that he was greatly influenced by Truett’s speech, told the crowd, “Our religious freedom must be protected by each generation. There are politicians in each generation, in the name of religion, who would do it great harm.”