I wonder why so many followers of the Way have turned their backs on religious freedom—something Baptists fought for from the very beginnings of this country. Religious liberty and responsible Christian citizenship go hand in hand. Freedom of religion is woven into the fabric of our country; our governing documents assert each person is free to worship – or not – as conscience dictates. Some have suggested the establishment of religious freedom is Baptists’ best contribution to our country’s history.
Historically, Baptists and other Christians argued for a free church in a free state, i.e., a church disentangled from state control and a state detached from church management. By free church, we mean each congregation is invited without conditions or pressure from external forces to determine its ministry focus and methodology; a free church doesn’t need or invite state financial or other support or endorsement to do its work (lest there are “strings attached”); and is not controlled or ruled by the state. A “free state” means government doesn’t advocate for or act against the church.
Some religions have come to believe they have been commanded by God to impose their beliefs and practices on others. Ironically, the very groups that first sought religious freedom and removal of state control upon their faith practices, later attempt to coerce and oppress others whose faith understandings and worship practices differ from their own. Why the disconnect and double-standard? Pilgrims, for example, came to the New World seeking religious freedom but then began oppressing native peoples similarly to how they (Pilgrims) were oppressed in England. Daniel Vestal tells the story of a school teacher who asked her students, “Why did the pilgrims come to this country on the Mayflower?” One little boy responded, “To worship God in their own way and then make other people do the same.” Sad but true, I’m afraid.
Very early, Baptists became aggressive activists in order to achieve their primary goal of religious freedom. The establishment of democracy made a “state church” illegal; Baptists (who were a religious minority) flourished in a system that encouraged freedom of religious thought and practice. Once their objective was achieved, however, Baptists shifted attention away from political activism (which many believed to be “unspiritual”) to concern for preserving and defending the wall separating church and state.
In recent years, geopolitical developments have redefined church-state agendas as the lure of theocracy motivates religious groups to seek governmental favors in exchange for political support. Sadly, many Baptists have succumbed to this temptation—believing the ends justify the means. This rejection of historic Baptist understanding of church-state separation invites patriotism to co-opt Christianity; Christianity no longer functions separately and distinctly from allegiance to any one country or culture. This is a dangerous development. William Hull in The Meaning of the Baptist Experience explains:
The distinctive Baptist understanding of religious liberty is not some denominational oddity, a mere hiccup on the side of history. Rather, it offers an essential contribution to the development of a post-9/11 geo-politic by enshrining the insight that the awesome spiritual power of religion may not be linked to the equally awesome temporal power of the state if any semblance of freedom is to survive.
It’s hard to miss the impact of Christians rejecting our long-held understanding of religious liberty. Denominational entities that work hard to court political parties harm both country and kin-dom. They falsely believe their faith understandings alone represent God and should be adopted by everyone. Before long, those who say they are followers of the Way use their ideology to work against justice, compassion, and the common good, in an effort to stay “in control” and “true to the faith.” Their power and influence become abusive, to the point of justifying persecution of any person or group out of alignment with their vision.
When I observe what’s happening today in Ukraine, it makes me wonder if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a cautionary tale for the United States. I know it is dangerous to make direct comparisons between differing contexts, but Vladimir Putin did intentionally and strategically co-opt the Russian Orthodox Church—that is, combined Russian nationalism with Russian Orthodoxy. Putin even describes the evil he perpetrates as, “protecting this spiritual space” – and he’s not talking about the church. Without the walls of separation, an unstable authoritarian leader uses the church to manipulate the people. As a result, corruption, death, and destruction abound. Ukrainians and Russians suffer. Freedom is stolen in the pursuit of restoring a distorted vision of earlier glory. Free churches in Ukraine may never recover; churches in Russia that support Putin’s atrocities are tarnished by turning a God who is Love into a god of war, hate, and destruction.
Hopefully, what is happening in Russia and Ukraine challenges our assumptions and emboldens us to again work for religious freedom for ALL. Let us reclaim our rich Baptist heritage regarding church-state separation so, as Knox Thames stated in a recent Baptist News Global interview, “Each can grow in its own garden to mutually benefit all.” As Baptists, we have always fought as strongly for the rights of those who do not believe as we do for our privilege to declare what we believe and practice. Abandoning this valuable principle of religious liberty has led many to embrace Christian nationalism that conflates Christianity and power. We must work diligently to correct Christian nationalist assertions that Christian beliefs and patriotism are the same. Not only is it untrue, it’s dangerous.
NOTE: Check out Baptist Joint Committee’s work on matters of religious liberty at https://bjconline.org. BJC reinforces the importance of freedom for all and harm being done by Christian nationalism
 I intentionally use the word kin-dom here rather than kingdom. The idea of “kingdom” has left a legacy of colonialism, imperialism, sexism, and racism—all of which diminish God’s people and God’s creation. “Kin-dom” allows us to envision an inclusive community built on common humanity and shared values.