You can say I came out of the womb of a Baptist preacher. In fact, I am a born Baptist, brought up Baptist, and when I die, I will be a dead Baptist. At the tender age of 9, I was baptized and confessed my faith in Christ. Despite all this, I never knew what made us different from any other Christian tradition.
Historically, Baptists are children of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. More importantly, Baptists have always been leaders at the forefront of protecting the separation of church and state. It is these roots that inform me and have led me to write this response to Congresswoman Lauren Boabert’s recent comments on the separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, in recent decades there has been a slight but vocal decline among some Christians in support of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. According to an October 2021 Pew Research Center study, a notable percentage of white evangelical Protestants believe the Establishment Clause should not be enforced; the Constitution is inspired by God, and the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation. It should be noted that polls show that the majority of Americans still support the separation of church and state.
Because she has aligned herself with the Christian right, I was not surprised by recent comments by US Representative Lauren Boebert at a church in Basalt, Colorado. To me, his most disturbing comments include “The church is supposed to run the government. The government is not supposed to run the church…I’m sick of this separation of church and state junk. She went on to make the historically incorrect claim that the principle of separation of church and state is “not in the Constitution, it was in a stinky letter…”
Before going any further, it is important to clearly establish the factual record. The separation of church and state is enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The “stinking letter” is the October 1801 correspondence between then-President Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association, in which Jefferson sought to assure them that the government had no interest in interfering with the free exercise of religion.
Boebert’s attempt to be a First Amendment scholar and theologian is undemocratic, complacent, and contrary to the tradition of American Christianity to maintain the separation of church and state.
His comments are dangerous because they strike at the heart of a basic human right. It is more tangible in the right to worship in a way you choose at a time and place of your choosing.
Thomas Jefferson aligned himself unequivocally with this position when he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association that “religion is a matter which stands only between man and his God…”
Jefferson goes on to reiterate that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was drafted for this very purpose. As late as 2000, Article XVIII of the Baptist Faith and Message warned that “the church should not resort to civil power to carry on its work”. If the government can control your god, then it’s no small step for the government to control every aspect of your life.
Roger Williams founded Rhode Island as a haven of religious freedom in direct response to the religious intolerance of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony. Later Baptist theologians have continued this theological tradition.
Southern Baptist theologian EY Mullins wrote, “Putting the power and prestige of the state behind one form of religion and simply tolerating others is not religious freedom. It is religious coercion. . .”
To be frank, what Boebert and others of his ilk are proposing begins and ends with religious coercion. From there, the road to religious persecution is neither long nor difficult.
Let me be clear as a man of faith who actively participates in the public square: the active participation of religious voices is extremely important for a healthy and functioning democracy.
However, this involvement demands that those of us who closely adhere to our religious commitments have the responsibility to enter the public square with grace and humility. We have an obligation to engage in a way that reflects the mercy extended to us. Finally, we are dedicated to preserving and protecting the religious preferences of others as fiercely as we protect our own.
— Terrance Carroll is a former president of the Colorado House. The first and only African American to hold this position in Colorado. He is a Baptist preacher, lawyer and policeman. He’s on Twitter @speakercarroll.