It is easy, especially in election years, for us to feel the tension between religion and politics. It seems that with each election cycle this tension gets more and more intense, as the temptation to bring the political world into a church context becomes more and more appealing.
In my area of the world (NC), during the 2016 elections, it was not uncommon to see churches in the area hold different political events and rallies, all taunting the need to save the US from the sure destruction that was to come.
As much it may seem, this mindset is not something new. Each generation of Baptists has had to struggle with how to relate to the political culture around them. While Baptists come to this with an especially interesting perspective for a few reasons, but their belief in individual soul liberty, or competency, is the major theological driver.
Soul competency speaks to the ability for all humans, regardless of race, creed, or religion, to be individually accountable and responsible to God. B.H. Carrol stated that it is, “The sole responsibility of decision and action rests directly upon the individual soul. Each one must give an account of himself to God. This is the first principle of New Testament law—to bring each naked soul face to face with God.”
Baptists believed that it was the individual’s right and responsibility to be accountable for the decisions that they made, and their beliefs concerning God. Further, it was the government's place to “leave them alone” so that they could do just this. They believed that according to scripture, it was the government’s God-ordained place to simply: maintain civil authority, protect individuals, and punish violators of others’ rights. (Rom. 13)
This belief, coupled with their persecution in the 18th century, provided instances of politically active Baptists in the early days of America (See Isaac Backus, John Leland, etc.), and while it was our Baptist forebears that set a precedent for political involvement , this was a one-way street.
Backus specifically saw an allowance for the church to be involved in politics, but not for politics to be involved in the church. While the intensity of activity, or inactivity, varied from Baptist to Baptist, keeping politics outside of the church was widely the consensus.
Even in Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State” was a separation of the government from the church, not necessarily the other way around. Bruce Shelley points out that while advocating for the separation of church and state Baptists “became the first Christians in modern times to preach a thorough-going religious liberty: the right to join in worship with others of like faith without state support and without state persecution.” Baptists who engaged in politics were actively engaged in securing liberty, not passively engaged in votes and rallies.
This may best demonstrate one of the areas that modern Baptists have gotten the cart before the horse. In order to align with the Baptists before us, we ought to be leading the charge, not just aligning to a candidate in order to achieve what we want at the expense of our convictions and our witnesses.
We cannot forget that our religious liberty is, ultimately, a means to a missional end. We are not pursuing religious liberty so that we can, after gaining it, step away and isolate ourselves from culture, our actions in pursuit of religious liberty are to gain the ability to freely proclaim the gospel and give others the liberty to be able to hear it.
Our Baptist forefathers would be likely to warn us of mingling the government with the church, no matter the end, knowing that the effect of this often terminates in the persecution that they had experienced themselves. They would also likely drawback from the idea that we can just “elect” our way into spiritual dominance.
Thomas Kidd may have stated it best when he said, "Early America’s Baptists did not expect politicians to do the heavy lifting for the church. They just wanted the government to protect religious liberty, so the church could be the church".
1.) R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2005). Pg. 177.
2.) Carroll, BH, Baptists and Their Doctrines (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1913). Pg. 18.
3.) R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2005). Pg. 170.
4.) Jefferson, Thomas (1802). [Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, dated January 1, 1802]
5.) Shelley, Bruce, Church History in Plain Language. (Thomas Nelson Inc; 2nd Edition, 1996). Pg. 254.
6.) R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2005). Pg. 180.
7.) Kidd, Thomas, Baptists and religious liberty (Light Magazine, June 10, 2016)