In a recent podcast, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, took Americans United to task for our stand in favor of total separation of church and state.
No surprise there. Mohler’s denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has been under the control of fundamentalists for decades. The SBC’s policy positions long ago shifted toward Christian nationalism.
But in assailing AU, Mohler made a charge that’s disingenuous: He attempted to portray Americans United as anti-Catholic, noting that when our organization was founded in 1947, AU was grounded in several Protestant churches and had a distinctly Protestant character.
“The group Americans United actually started out with a very clear, very Protestant identity,” Mohler wrote. “Again, unashamedly at the time, this meant anti-Roman Catholic and it came in the background of a great debate between many Protestants on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other about the proper relationship of the church to the state.”
That’s a bit of an over-simplification. The leadership of Americans United was indeed heavily Protestant at the time of the group’s founding in 1947 – but that doesn’t mean they were anti-Catholic.
Some background is helpful: The Catholic Church at the time of AU’s founding was lobbying to secure direct taxpayer support for its network of private schools. (They still do that today, mainly by advocating for private school voucher plans.) But they were doing a lot more. Church officials were also crusading for laws that banned the distribution of birth control and information about it for everyone (even married couples) and advocating censorship of books, magazines, stage plays and films that church leaders felt were “immoral” or that cast religion in a negative light.
People naturally pushed back at this form of clerical domination, pointing to the language of the First Amendment. The religious leaders who founded AU were more than happy to allow individual Catholics to subsidize church schools and live under the church’s rules – but they saw no reason why everyone else should have to do those things.
And I hate to break this to you, Al, but your denomination stood right there alongside AU. That’s right – the Southern Baptist Convention was among Americans United’s founding bodies. Louie D. Newton, president of the SBC, took part in the early meetings that formed AU and served on the organization’s Board of Directors for 22 years, including 18 years as its president. (Other prominent Baptists were involved as well.)
AU didn’t change – but the SBC did. Once the fundamentalist faction got control, they switched sides on separation of church and state, turning their backs on historic Baptist principles championed by prominent leaders of the faith like Roger Williams, John Leland and yes, Louie Newton.
Today, AU works with Baptists who disagree with the SBC and who stand up for separation. We work with Catholics and members of other faiths who believe that religious freedom is incompatible with forced support for religion and coercion. We work with plenty of non-religious people, too.
AU’s stances are not, and never have been, “anti” any faith. But they are anti-coercion, anti-control and anti-government support when it comes to religion. We believe religious groups can, and must, find support from voluntary contributions and should further their positions by moral suasion and the power of argument, not ham-fisted forms of government-backed coercion.
In short, we believe in a free church in a free state. Mohler might want to look that up. It’s something a lot of Baptists used to say they believed in.
P.S. For more on this, see this great piece by Brian Kaylor, one of AU’s Baptist allies, at Word&Way.
Photo: AU’s founders, circa 1948. Louie D. Newton is in the back row, fifth from the left.