“What will become of our commitment to religious liberty now?” historian Bill Leonard asks Baptists about the loss of Protestant privilege in American life.

By Bob Allen

As early defenders of religious liberty for all, Baptists today should celebrate religious pluralism even as Protestant privilege wanes in American culture, Baptist historian Bill Leonard said June 22 at a luncheon in Fort Worth, Texas, during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.

Leonard, a professor of church history and Baptist studies at Wake Forest Divinity School, reminded members of the Religious Liberty Council, a member body of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, that Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church on American soil, established Providence, R.I., as a “shelter for persons distressed for conscience.”

Leonard said it was easy for Baptists to affirm pluralism and freedom of conscience while they were a distinct and sometimes-persecuted minority, but as religious liberty became more the norm, they discovered that, the First Amendment notwithstanding, Americans “grant religious liberty grudgingly” to minority groups.

Now, Leonard said, the pluralism that Baptists anticipated and defended much earlier than many American Protestant groups has prevailed, with cities and towns populated by multiple Christian and non-Christian religious groups and the accompanying “death rattle of Protestant privilege in American culture,” especially in the South and Southwest.

“This loss of religious hegemony forces us to ask: What will become of our commitment to religious liberty now?” Leonard said.

Leonard urged contemporary Baptists to “learn to replace culture-privilege with culture-witness.”

“We do not claim religious rights at the expense of other’s conscience but demand voice, the right to declare our views publicly and privately in ways that take dialogue and differences seriously,” he said. “Disagree vehemently on the basis of conscience; but burn no one, implicitly or explicitly.”

Leonard called on Baptists to defend and live into their heritage of religious freedom with humility, tempering advocacy for church/state separation with the confession that Baptists benefit from ministerial tax exemptions that represent “the last gasp of fourth century Constantinianism in a democratic culture.”

In a society where individualism is rampant, Leonard said churches “need to take communal responsibility for distinguishing Christian conscience from destructive fanaticism or political meanness.” At the same time, he said, faith communities must listen for “the prophetic voice of the lone individual, even when it is painful and divisive.”

Leonard urged churches to struggle “to distinguish between freedom of conscience in church/state matters and freedom of dialogue and debate inside the Baptist house.”

During recent political skirmishes in his own town including debate over North Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Leonard said he was struck at how “Christians in general and Baptists in particular seldom found ways to talk about their differences outside sound bites in the public media.”

“Right now I’ve put a personal moratorium on using the term Body of Christ too readily, so deep are the divisions and the silence between supposed brothers and sisters in Christ,” Leonard said. “At the same time, when our consciences are ‘pricked’ across the political spectrum, we need not be silent, hoping to talk to, not just at, those with whom we differ.”

“Finally, amid all the distress, in good conscience let’s consider this,” Leonard concluded. “In the year of our Lord 2012 a Republican, former Mormon missionary, and a Democrat, nurtured in an African-American liberationist congregation, are running against each other for president of the United States.”

Leonard said that situation appears to bear out Roger Williams’ radical 1644 assertion that “true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either Jew or Gentile.”

“He won, didn’t he?” Leonard asked. “At least for now.”