Even E.Y. Mullins Would Be Labeled a ‘Christian Nationalist’ Today
Over the past two years, it has become the accepted wisdom in many quarters that so-called “Christian nationalism” is irreconcilably incompatible with Baptist political theology. Setting aside for now the endless debates over the definition of “Christian nationalism,” to casual observers of these debates, this accepted wisdom seems entirely reasonable. After all, any student of Baptist history knows that Baptists were at the forefront of the movement to ensure ecclesiastical disestablishment in the new American republic. If Baptists stood opposed to the United States being a “Christian nation” at the time of the Founding Fathers, why would Baptists support it today?
We all know the story: from the beginning of the Puritans’ rule in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Baptists suffered oppression in New England. The only safe haven was Rhode Island, where Roger Williams, a refugee of this oppression, had fled and established a colony. Likewise, in Virginia, Baptist ministers were regularly harassed and arrested by the Anglican legal establishment there. But then, during the Revolutionary War era, Baptist ministers like John Leland and Isaac Backus teamed up with Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to secure religious freedom, culminating in laws like the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786, and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791. Finally, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association that there must be “a wall of separation between church and state.” Baptists—so it may seem—were at the forefront of making America the secular nation that it became.
By the early twentieth century, the association, in America, between Baptists and a very liberal definition of religious liberty had been cemented. In a famous 1920 speech to the Southern Baptist Convention, George W. Truett, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas from 1897 to 1944, declared that religious liberty was not only “the chiefest contribution that America has thus far made to civilization” but in fact “a pre-eminently a Baptist contribution.”1 In this speech, which is still often cited by Baptist political commentators today, Truett goes on to argue that this religious liberty does not merely mean toleration of non-Protestant groups but rather, absolute liberty for anyone to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience. He declared, “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.”2 The messengers assembled at the 1920 Southern Baptist Convention affirmed that they agreed with Truett’s sentiment, passing a resolution stating: “We affirm that it is the sense of the five thousand and more messengers in session of the Southern Baptist Convention, representing three millions of white Baptists, that it is contrary to the true spirit of Americanism and to the traditions of the American people to foster or favor any union of Church and State.”3
Surprising Sabbath Sentiments
However, as I was researching George Truett’s speech earlier this semester while working on my master’s thesis, I stumbled upon a paradigm-shattering historical fact. At the 1920 SBC Convention held in Washington, D.C. —the same one at which Truett delivered this speech on religious liberty—the messengers to the SBC also adopted a resolution that to most Americans ears today, would sound exceedingly “Christian Nationalist” and which would, without a doubt, provoke cries of “theocracy!” Indeed, in 1920, the majority of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention formally requested that the civil magistrate enforce the Fourth Commandment in the form of the Christian Sabbath.
It seems that Southern Baptist clergy and laity, upon arriving in Washington, D.C. for the Convention that year, were scandalized by the municipality’s lack of Sabbath laws. Thus, they introduced and passed this resolution:
WHEREAS, There is no Sunday closing law in Washington City; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Southern Baptist Convention, in meeting assembled, requests its membership over the South to press upon their Congressmen the vital importance of observing the day as a civil institution in this critical period of our national history, and urging legislation on this pressing question in the District of Columbia.4
By explicitly asking the municipal government of Washington, D.C. to pass a law mandating that businesses were to be closed on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, Southern Baptists were asking the government to do something that would be shocking to many Baptists today. Besides the fact that many Southern Baptists today would be wholly unfamiliar with the doctrine of Sabbatarianism, this resolution reveals that Southern Baptists in 1920 operated under quite different political presuppositions.
Southern Baptists today are accustomed to advocating that the civil government legislate on God’s moral law in certain areas—banning abortion, for example, or perhaps passing laws against trans-ing the kids. Those types of laws are not tied to Christianity, per se, and they fit squarely inside classically liberal notions of what civil government exists for—that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.” This protection, furthermore, is typically defined as protection from physical or reputational harm—not emotional or spiritual harm.
However, in this 1920 resolution, Southern Baptists asked the civil government to do far more than what Ronald Reagan saw the role of government to be. Although nature itself can teach us that we need rest, the Lord’s Day, specifically, is not a day about which general revelation teaches. Passing a law that promotes and protects it is explicitly privileging Christianity over Judaism, for example, which teaches that the Sabbath is still on Saturdays. Additionally, it does not make much sense to argue that prohibiting commercial activities on the Lord’s Day is motivated by the interest of protecting citizens from physical or reputational harm caused by others. Rather, it is straightforwardly a way to promote the spiritual health of the community and to ensure that as many people as possible can go to church. It is a law with explicitly spiritual, and pro-Christian ends.
Therefore, as contradictory as it may seem to us today, at the same Convention that George Truett delivered his famous speech on religious liberty, and at which Southern Baptists messengers emphasized that no “union of Church and State” was acceptable to them, the majority of messengers assembled, nevertheless, asked the government of Washington, D.C., to legally privilege Christianity by passing a law for the spiritual good of the community.
“A Free Church in a Free State”?
The Resolution on the Lord’s Day that was passed in 1920 stood within a long tradition among Baptists in the United States, and Southern Baptists, of keeping the Christian Sabbath and believing that civil legislation should promote it. Southern Baptists made clear, in a series of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century resolutions passed by messengers at conventions, that they supported the civil magistrate enforcing and promoting the Christian Sabbath. A resolution passed in 1882 reads: “[W]hen the proper time shall come we will recommend our people to unite with all law-abiding citizens in seeking, as citizens’ for such legislative enactments as will guarantee to all classes of society, the Sabbath as a day of recreation; and will give such protection as will enable all who may desire on that day to worship in forms and ways of their own choosing without hinderance or molestation.”5
Then, in 1892, Southern Baptist messengers expressed shock at the fact that the World’s Columbian Exposition, a major world fair that was held in Chicago in 1893, was going to be open on the Lord’s Day. They complained that it was, “An outrage upon the Christian sentiment of America which should be resisted by all proper influence and effort.”6
Finally, then in 1934, Southern Baptist messengers re-affirmed, yet again, their “devotion to the sanctity of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship, to be faithfully observed by all Christians in keeping with their Christian privileges and obligations, and to the civil Sunday as a day of rest and quiet for man and beast.” They “urge[d] upon all public officials and private citizens for necessity and obligation for the enactment, maintenance and enforcement of all legislation necessary, as a matter of public morality, to safeguard Sunday against commercialization and to preserve Sunday as one of the most distinctive and most necessary features of our civic life.”7
The reigning Baptist political theology of the day was the notion of “a free church in a free state.” This phrase inevitably made it into the “religious liberty” article of the Baptist Faith and Message, which was drafted in 1925 as a new confession for the Southern Baptist Convention to replace the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. Before that, however, the notion of a “free church in a free state” had been strongly advocated by Edgar Young (E.Y.) Mullins—who served as the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1899 until his death in 1928, and as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1921 to 1923—in his popular 1908 book, The Axioms of Religion.
In The Axioms of Religion, Mullins makes an unambiguously strong case for near-absolute religious liberty. The book consists of different “axioms” that Mullins considered to be core components of the true Christian faith (i.e., the Baptist tradition), and one of these axioms is what he terms the “religio-civic axiom.” He explains on the first page of the chapter about this axiom that “[i]n short, the entire contents of this axiom is summed up in the statement that the state has no ecclesiastical function and the Church no civic function.”8 This statement, in itself, is not extremely controversial in the world of Protestant thought and mainly just positions Mullins against Erastianism.
However, the remainder of the chapter on this axiom makes it clear that Mullins did not just think that the state should have “no ecclesiastical function” but that it should not even serve spiritual ends. He explains that “Americans do not deny that the ends for which government exists are moral, but they do deny that those ends are religious.”9 Mullins also makes clear that he opposes the civil government passing any sort of legislation that would bind the consciences of non-Christians on religious matters and for this reason, he opposes the Bible being read in schools.10 To say the least, Mullins would have not agreed with Stephen Wolfe’s proposed form of Christian Nationalism, in which the nation self-consciously recognizes itself as a Christian nation and acts with a “totality of national action” to “procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.”11
However, even Mullins supported Sabbath laws—so long as they were not explicitly religious in character. He explains in another book, Baptist Beliefs, a 1913 exposition of the New Hampshire Confession, after propagating the traditional Baptist view on the Lord’s Day—that the Christian should rest from all ordinary employments except for in cases of necessity or mercy—that “the state may enact laws for the observance of one day in seven in a secular way without giving to them any religious significance in the wider sense.” He notes, “Like laws against stealing or murder, the state may enact such laws.” He insists that while the State may not compel anyone to attend church on Sundays, non-Christians who think that Sabbath laws are intrusions of religion into the civic sphere are wrong.
This, however, may strike the modern reader as inconsistent. How could Mullins consistently argue that the government should only serve civic, and not religious ends, and yet argue the government should legally protect a day that is only known to Christians by special revelation?
The key lies in Mullins’ assertion that “the ends for which government exists are moral.” Simply put, the political arrangement that Mullins proposes is only possible in a society in which the moral foundation of the state and its institutions is Christianity. Though Mullins believed the end of government was only moral and not spiritual, the content of this morality was unambiguously Christian. Mullins argues that “[I]t is a fair inference from the Declaration of Independence that in the main [Americans] regard our Constitution as grounded in essential moral principles, and that ultimately government is the expression of moral relations which exist in human society and created by God.”12 Though Mullins does not use the phrase “natural law,” he seems to be saying that there are natural moral relations which exist in a society that are made evident through general revelation and to which governments should subscribe. This is a rejection of both positivism and social contract theory, asserting that human beings are not, ultimately, the source of the moral content of laws—God is.
Mullins, and the messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1882, 1920, and 1932, evidently believed that protecting the Christian Sabbath by force of civil law was one application of this morality. The messengers in 1932 were clear about this, understanding it to be “a matter of public morality,” “to preserve Sunday as one of the most distinctive and necessary features of our civil life.” Mullins, for his part, does not explain specifically how the Sabbath can be a matter of public, non-explicitly religious morality, but he compares the government’s right to pass laws on it to their right to pass laws against stealing and murder—other moral principles that are revealed by general revelation but ultimately founded in God’s created moral order.
Religious Liberty? Yes. Unfettered Pluralism? No.
Growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist family and church in the 2000s, the understanding that I absorbed about the government’s role was consistent with Ronald Reagan’s. I picked up, from those around me, that policies like Obamacare were bad because they overstepped the government’s legitimate bounds. In this case of abortion, however, the government needed to step in and make it illegal because its role was supposed to be to protect people—including unborn babies—from bodily harm.
In 2015, however, when I was fifteen years old, Obergefell v. Hodges was decided. The United States Supreme Court forced every state to legally recognize same-sex marriages, based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. To my shame now, after Obergefell was decided, I supported legal same-sex marriage. The government cannot keep consenting adults from entering any sort of contract that they want to enter—I thought. Religious liberty is one of the cornerstones of American democracy, and different individuals have different religious (or non-religious) convictions about “marriage” that needed to be respected equally.
Many Christians have been won over by these types of arguments. In a piece published in the Atlantic last November, David French argued that the Respect for Marriage Act, which supposedly balances religious freedom with LGBTQ marriage equality, “demonstrates that compromise still works and that pluralism has life left in it.” Indeed, he opined that “[t]he magic of the American republic is that it can create space for people who possess deeply different world views to live together, work together, and thrive together, even as they stay true to their different religious faiths and moral convictions.”13
This is the inevitable result of classical liberalism on steroids. Though we as Christians recognize that marriage between a man and a woman in a procreative union is an essential foundation of a healthy society, if people like David French are to have their say, the government cannot have any power to actively preserve and promote that society. We are told that if we seek to protect “religious liberty,” we must have legal categories that are not rooted in any one essential definition, but which cater to a plethora of definitions from every person’s moral and religious philosophy of choice. The word “marriage” is no longer permitted to have any concrete and exclusive definition—rather, it must mean virtually everything (aside from definitions that would imply physical harm or coercion) that anyone wants it to mean, and if the law prohibits this from being the case… well, that is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Today, those who dare to argue that there is only one definition of marriage, which is rooted in God’s created moral order, and thus that Obergefell should be overturned, are often labeled “Christian Nationalists” or “theonomists.” In fact, the situation is even worse than this. If you happen to think, at all, that there is a created design for gender and sex that has been inscribed by God upon our bodies, and that teenagers should not have their bodies mutilated and their genitals chopped off because our society is increasingly denying that fact, you are a “Christian Nationalist.”14
Maybe you have heard lines like these:
How dare you believe that laws should be based upon concrete, moral principles that have been revealed by God in creation? That’s ‘theonomy!’ Do you not believe in religious liberty and pluralism? Are you not a Baptist? Jesus rejected political power when he was tempted by Satan in the desert, and yet you think that embracing political power is the way to demonstrate Christ’s love?
Such arguments are commonplace and will only grow more so.
Considering this, the argument that Baptists cannot be “Christian nationalists” because of their longstanding support for religious liberty and the separation of church and state misses the forest for the trees. There are a few reasons for this:
- No matter what, if you are a conservative Christian who is intent upon advocating for political policies that are, ultimately, rooted in God’s moral and eternal law, you will be called a Christian Nationalist. You are already being called that —believe me—and it will only increase. This is especially true about issues like abortion, marriage, and transgenderism.
- When early twentieth-century Baptists, like George Truett and E.Y. Mullins, advocated for nearly unrestricted religious liberty and total separation of church and state, they assumed that the basic moral fabric of American society was a Christian one. The society in which they lived had inherited a robust Anglo-Protestant tradition of laws, institutions, and norms. Mullins himself acknowledged that the Constitution was grounded, ultimately, in Christian moral principles. It did not emerge out of thin air.
Sure, there are elements of Stephen Wolfe’s specific vision for Christian nationalism that are incompatible with most historic Baptist political thought—particularly the idea that a primary telos of the state is to procure heavenly, in addition to earthly good, for its people. Additionally, most Baptist leaders in the United States have consistently been vocal supporters of the American republic and democracy and would likely shirk at Wolfe’s idea of a “Christian prince.”
However, another definition of “Christian Nationalism” is the recent “Statement on Christians Nationalism & the Gospel” (which was exclusively authored and edited by Baptists). This statement defined the civil magistrate’s role as follows:
WE AFFIRM that God’s purpose for civil government is to establish justice for His glory and the good of all people. We affirm that unjust laws harm people and that just laws reflect the character of God and point people toward their need for a Savior.
WE DENY that the purpose of civil government is to establish a secular, neutral, or godless order. We deny that any government is capable of neutrality as every individual and system has moral preferences and functional gods (i.e., ultimate allegiances and ultimate standards by which they judge reality). We further deny that natural law is a different standard from God’s moral and universal law summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments. 15
It is hard to see how E.Y. Mullins, or virtually any Baptists before the middle of the twentieth century, would have opposed this language, apart from some quibbling with terminology. To the latter point, it does seem that Mullins was more optimistic about the term “secular,” for example, and thought there could be “neutrality.” However, this assumed an American society in which there was an a priori assumption that the morality that the law existed to protect and promote was rooted in God’s moral and universal law.
As the statement above says— “just laws reflect the character of God.” The logical consequence of this is that the institutions and laws of a nation where justice reigns supreme will, definitionally, will look similar, in character, to what a Christian nation would look like. That nation, in the totality of its actions, would act similarly to how a Christian nation would act. Even one of the most pro-religious liberty, pro-separation of Church and State Baptists in twentieth-century Baptist history—E.Y. Mullins—recognized this when he recognized that the U.S. Constitution, which he considered to reflect justice, was rooted in moral principles that ultimately derived from God.
Therefore, while it is true that Baptists have long been some of the foremost advocates for religious liberty, there is no need for Baptists today to immediately write off all the ideas being tossed around as “Christian Nationalism” as being incompatible with the Baptist tradition. This is gaslighting.
Standing for religious liberty and standing for “just laws [that] reflect the character of God” are not mutually exclusive, and it is only of recent import that any Baptist would ever think so.
Image Credit: Unsplash
- George Washington Truett, “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” reprinted in Baptist History & Heritage 33, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 67, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/sim_baptist-history-and-heritage_winter-1998_33_1. ↩
- Truett, “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” 70. ↩
- “Resolution on Religious Liberty,” Southern Baptist Convention, 1920, https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-religious-liberty-11/. ↩
- “Resolution on the Lords Day,” Southern Baptist Convention, 1920, https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-the-lords-day-4/. ↩
- “Resolution on Sabbath Observance,” Southern Baptist Convention, 1882, https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-sabbath-observance/. ↩
- “Resolution on the Lords Day,” Southern Baptist Convention, 1892, https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-the-lords-day-2/. ↩
- “Resolution on the Lords Day,” Southern Baptist Convention, 1934, https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-the-lords-day-5/. ↩
- Edgar Young Mullins, The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), 185, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/axiomsofreligion01mull_0/mode/2up. ↩
- Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, 194. ↩
- Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, 197-8. ↩
- Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022), 9. ↩
- Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, 194-5. ↩
- David French, “Pluralism Has Life Left in It Yet,” The Atlantic, November 18, 2022, https://newsletters.theatlantic.com/the-third-rail/6377fb0dce44df0038de4c62/respect-for-marriage-same-sex-religious-freedom/. ↩
- Melissa Gira Grant, “Christian Nationalism Has Prevailed in Texas. Trans Teens Will Suffer.”, The New Republic, May 19, 2023, https://newrepublic.com/article/172861/christian-nationalism-prevailed-texas-trans-teens-will-suffer. ↩
- James Silberman and Dusty Deevers, “The Statement on Christian Nationalism & the Gospel,” William Wolfe, Joel Webbon, Jeff Wright, and Corey Anderson, eds., 2nd ed., https://www.statementonchristiannationalism.com/. ↩