“Right now, we are fighting for the future narrative of America’s history,” explained William D. Underwood, President of Mercer University and keynote speaker for today’s Baptist Joint Committee luncheon. “The first amendment created for Americans a more robust religious environment than any other nation in the world. Why give that up for the dead, empty edifice of a state religion?”
As he addressed an audience of advocates for religious liberty, Underwood went on to paint an extensive picture of what America would look like under a state-sanctioned religion. Political opponents would face off on issues such as who would author government-sanctioned school prayers, what those prayers would say and how specific Bible story details would be taught. “Christians see God in fundamentally different ways,” Underwood said. “How are we supposed to choose one Christianity?”
Underwood argued that religious liberty is an issue that has actually regressed since the 1960s, a time when the general consensus among Americans was that church and state should remain separate. The Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale (1962), in which it was decided that school-initiated prayer in the public school system violates the First Amendment, sparked a faction of opposition that quickly began to grow.
“Since then, separation of church and state began to erode,” Underwood said. “Now, it’s basically accepted when political leaders say that the Founding Fathers designed America’s government to be based upon Christian principles. Studies show that many Americans believe that the Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments. Wouldn’t it be a good exercise for our political leaders to actually read those founding documents?”
Underwood went on to describe why the work of the BJC today is more important than ever before. “My prayer today is that God will grant us the courage to face this challenge,” Underwood said.
Perhaps K. Hollyn Holloman, general counsel for the BJC, summed it up best when she said that “Our mission is at the heart of Baptist history. Religious Liberty for all. Not just for some.”
At the conclusion of the luncheon, two of the most passionate advocates for the defense of religious liberty were awarded the J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award – Bill Underwood and Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, Senior Pastor Emeritus of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I feel connected to each person in this room, because we have all fought the fight,” Taylor said. “Whether for civil liberty or religious liberty, it’s because of people like you that we will continue to move forward.”