June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Internal Southern Baptist survey shows mixed results on separation

 

A 2016 Pew Research survey identified the Southern Baptist Convention as the third most politically conservative religious group — behind only the Mormon Church and Church of the Nazarene. Now, eight years later, a recent internal survey of Southern Baptists by the denomination’s Lifeway Research arm offers some new insights into the denomination.

Perhaps to the surprise of many observers, the April 2024 Lifeway survey concluded that “Southern Baptists broadly embrace conservative political ideology but also support religious liberty for all Americans and a government that does not favor any specific religion.”

If that is not clear enough in an era of widespread Christian Nationalism, Southern Baptists’ Dan Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers clarity: “These findings reinforce that Baptists in our pews generally hold historic Baptist beliefs about the role of the church and the state. Baptists desire robust engagement in the public square and strongly believe in a free church in a free state. This research should inform the discussions surrounding Southern Baptists, especially in a political season.”

Early Baptists in colonial America, a minority persecuted by state churches, were among the most vocal opponents of theocracy. Many Southern Baptists “view the relationship between the church and state more like early Baptists than modern-day Christian nationalists,” a press release from Lifeway noted. 

Not only laity, but also clergy in Southern Baptist life, favor church-state separation. Survey responses revealed that “80% of members and 86% of leaders support the government ensuring people can freely practice their religion.” 

Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, observed that “large numbers of Southern Baptists consistently want religious liberty to encompass all religions and desire space for differing opinions on religion among Americans.” 

But there is a catch: The denomination’s laity “are more divided over privileges afforded to Christianity due to what they see as the faith’s role in the nation’s origins.” A false belief that America was founded as a Christian nation is widely perceived as the foundation of Christian Nationalism, and 91% of Southern Baptists surveyed “say Christianity influenced the founding of the United States.” A significant minority, 38%, believe “Christianity deserves special privileges from the American government due to the nation’s history,” also a key Christian Nationalist belief.

What “special privileges” do many Southern Baptists want? More than 2 in 3 members (67%) and 3 in 4 leaders (77%), according to the Lifeway survey, “believe Christians should fight secularism by encouraging legislation that encourages Christian beliefs and practices.” While less than half of leaders and laity alike believe “loosening U.S. Constitutional prohibitions on government involvement in religion can stem the tide of moral decline,” majorities believe the Ten Commandments should be posted in all public schools, an ideological staple of Christian Nationalism.

Finally, amid the survey’s mixed messaging, some data suggest opportunities for Americans United members to have meaningful dialogue with Southern Baptists:

  • Most Southern Baptists are unfamiliar with Roger Williams, John Leland and Isaac Backus, the three leading historical Baptist champions of church-state separation and equal freedom of religion and conscience for all. More education about the contributions of all three colonial figures is needed.
  • 85% of Southern Baptists agree that “Baptists have stood up for the freedom of individuals to follow their conscience on religious beliefs.” This is an open door for authentic conversation.
  • Slightly less than half (43%) would “like to hear more” about “the relationship between church and state.” This is a clear invitation awaiting acceptance.
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