Antidisestablishmentarianism (From the Archives)

OK, although it proves I’m a nerd (as if any of you had any doubts) I will come right out and admit it: ever since I was a child and first learned about the longest word in the dictionary I have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to use it in a sentence. I suppose that is the silver lining I can find in the religious right – they have given me the opportunity to use the word.

Establishment, as those who know the first amendment are aware, refers to having an established church or religion that is state sponsored and state approved. Disestablishment thus represents the removal of such a status, the separation of church and state (as Thomas Jefferson famously put it). Antidisestablishmentarianism is thus the point of view that is opposed to the separation of church and state, and thus the American religious right is very clearly (if I may be so bold as to try to outdo the dictionary in length of words) antidisestablishmentarianistically-oriented! :-)

Back in 2006, I read Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament (New York: Basic Books, 2006), a book that eloquently takes the religious right to task for denying the historic values of American Christianity, undermining the foundations of both American democracy and the Baptist tradition to which many among the religious right claim to belong. Yet the Baptists historically were the key proponents of the separation of church and state, because they saw both the persecution and the empty formalism that resulted from state-sponsored religion, and realized that both were detrimental to the health of true Christianity. Indeed, it is hard for many who have experienced the Southern Baptist Convention in its modern form to believe that the words of George Washington Truett, spoken in 1920 from the steps of the Capitol, could once have been true: “Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to opression of conscience” (quoted in Balmer, p.69).

Thomas Helwys famously wrote the following words to King James I of England in 1612:

For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their
consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is
but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes.
And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws
made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to
God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may
the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or
whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least
measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures (The Mystery of Iniquity 53).

This is the same King James under whose auspices the famous translation of the Bible was made. He imprisoned Helwys for speaking out in this way about the king’s persecution in particular of Roman Catholics. Helwys, like the American Founding Fathers, realized that in order for one’s own freedoms to be guaranteed, the freedoms of all viewpoints had to be guaranteed. It is distressing to see not only how many Americans and how many Christians, but how many even among Baptists have abandoned their confidence in the power of the Gospel in exchange for attempts to instead manipulate, harass, legislate and in other ways impose their views on others in a way that flies in the face of the spirit of both American democracy and the Christian message.

Balmer’s book’s strongest point, however, is in highlighting the irony of the religious right’s claims to be concerned about the Gospel, about Biblical values, and so on. In a famous instance from a few years ago, when asked where they stood on the issue of TORTURE, right-wing religious groups either said they had no particular view or statement, or parroted the rhetoric of the current administration. Appalling! How can you possibly claim to be a Christian and yet focus all your attention on matters about which the Bible says relatively little (e.g. abortion and homosexuality) and miss the overarching themes of social justice (one of the things that Amos decries Israel’s neighbors for is torture), of the evils of persecution, of loving one’s enemies and doing to others what we would have them do to us? I thank God that more and more voices are being raised by courageous individuals against the evil of the religious right. That is correct, you heard me correctly: it is not simply the case any more that the religious right in America is simply out of touch with the teaching of the Bible. They have become the very thing they claim to oppose. They have become what the Bible defines as evil. How did this happen? I would attribute it to one simple factor that the Bible warns us against. The religious right has become hypocritical, able to see sins in others while seemingly unable to spot the telephone pole lodged in their own eye. Self-righteousness is, as the New Testament warns, quite possibly the hardest sin to root out, and it has infected the whole movement of the religious right in this country.

Christianity Today decades ago warned of precisely where things might lead, but their warning was apparently unheeded. This quote is just another wonderful tidbit quoted in Balmer’s book (p.xvii): “Too narrow a front in battling for a moral crusade, or for a truly biblical involvement in politics, could be disastrous. It could lead to the election of a moron who holds the right view on abortion” (“Getting God’s Kingdom Into Politics”, Christianity Today September 19, 1980, p.10).

Antidisestablishmentarianism. The word you never thought you’d get to use. Today, it is a word we need to bring into our discussions more frequently, even though it is long and unwieldy, since it nicely summarizes the danger the religious right poses to our nation and our world.

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  • Sunflower

    Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis :-D

  • Anonymous

    The whole philosophical underpinnings of Protestantism and Catholicism is different. One has a supernaturalistic bias, while the other has a naturalistic one.

    Science is based in the natural realm, as are the social sciences. And this is the real issue, isn’t it? Separation of Church and State did not mean that our country could not hold to certain standards regarding social structures, as government is a social structure, itself!

    The problem, as I understand it, is that the individual must have the political liberty to defend, and vote his beliefs, one way or another. There are many ways to see and understand these issues. And since there is not one way to view social issues, then it should be left to conscience!

    Yes, the Baptist were the primary instigator of Jefferson’s letter that applauded “separation of Church and State”, the Baptist did not represent everyone’s view.

    I would think that political philosophy was much more the influencing power on the Founding Fathers, than social science or theology…This is not to say that the Founders were not influenced at all by the social norms or the theological framing of their day. How could they not be?

    • Geoff Hudson

      “The whole philosophical underpinnings of Protestantism and Catholicism is different. One has a supernaturalistic bias, while the other has a naturalistic one.”

      Which is which?  Doesn’t the church of Rome have miracles? 
      The Pope and the Catholic Church aim to survive and send the others to the dogs? On the one hand they seem to promote orthodoxy for the simple.  On the other, I suspect their scholars are hard at work undermining traditional Christanity with the Pope’s blessing.  And the Catholic Church will be left triumphant.           

      • Anonymous

        Naturalism believes that social structures are the defining definors of society. The Catholic Church adheres to this, as they believed that if one was indoctrinated in the Church until the age of 12, then such “teachings” would hold sway over conscience. Social structures are the things that make for a civil society; government, Church/community, and family. Atheists believe in social structures, so this is not where the conflict lies. It is what defines those social structures and how they are to work in societal values. And what “morality” means. What is proper behavior or belief about the world?

  • Anonymous

    when I say there are “standards” of social structures, I am not referring to our nation, as a unique experiment! We didn’t believe that any person, or Deity had the right to subvert the “rule of law”. The problem today has to do with how the “Bible” has been affected by fundmentalism. Fundamentalists believe that the “Bible” is the basis of government, and everything else in/about life. The Bible is the standard.

    This view of scripture was not the Founders view. Theirs was a more open view than we find among evangelicals/fundamentalists today. Theirs was a natural law theory that defended “order” and was the accepted scientific view of that day. It fits nicely with a natural view of society and social structuring of that day. But today, social order is not as straightforward. We don’t have slaves, women have rights, and now, gay are petitioning for equal rights, as well!

  • Beau Quilter


    I completely agree with your assessment of today’s Southern Baptist Convention. This organization has made it perfectly clear that it’s goal is nothing less than an American theocracy.

    However, I think it would be healthy to point out the huge number of Baptist churches and organizations around the country who fight to distance themselves from the SBC.

    In particular, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is an advocacy and education organization which still fights rigorously for the separation of church and state in the original Baptist tradition. They are supported by quite a number of Baptist state conventions and associations outside the SBC.

    Their website:

  • Anonymous

    For those inclined to think that the way one was brought up is the preferred denomination of choice, I disagree. I was raised in the Southern Baptist denomination, but have not chosen to affliate with them, since high school. My husband and I have visited, but have not like or preferred this as our preferrence.

    Perhaps, the way one is inclined to think is more applicable, as far as early conditioning. I don’t know, that is for the neuroscientists to investigate….social and cultural studies have tended to believe that humans are conditioned by their environment. But how much, that is the question.

    Religion is a symbolic or/and meaning making endeavor, but having a meaningful life does not have to include religion, religious tradition or be defined by theological explaination…..

  • Michael Wilson

    Hitler once said he was not worried about the church opposing him, because after he won, they would naturally conform to the political situation he created. Evangelicalism has slipped into using the Bible as a justification of the society that created Evangelicalism, updating there position only after the secular culture has made old positions untenable. For instance, Southern Baptist are finding that God is against race mixing less and less every generation.

    • Anonymous

      This may be true, but not in the South where I come from. My family still has its bias against mixing the races. I believe that those who choose to marry outside their race or religion have the right to do so, but do suffer reprecussions in some social situations. which in turn affects their children!

  • RSBrenchley

    Hitler was right; the vast majority of the German ‘Christians’ of the day did accept his policies. That’s the danger of state religion; everything gets manipulated to offer unquestioning support political authorities, whatever they do.

    I find it ironic that the one nation which makes a great song and dance about the separation of church and state is also the one which demands that its politicians wear their faith (of the right sort) on their sleeves.

    • Anonymous

      Though I agree that Church and State should remain separate, it is not because I believe that individuals shouldn’t define their life by their philisophical persuasion and then vote with their own two feet and one head…That is what living in a free society is about The problem is that most people don’t stop to think about their position, other than what they are told ‘the Bible says”….or what some political pundit pushes…

      All dictators can manipulate the population to accept “his view” if he is astute and the people are not tuned to “think for themselves”…and some even use “the Bible” to do bring about a herd mentality toward policy issues. Such behavior is nothing short of following a ‘cult leader”!!!

  • Brian

    I don’t see why we need to get into a heated discussion about naturalism or supernaturalism in my own Catholic Church. But I would say that the Church adheres to both. Which is why we tend to view the universe in sacremental terms as oppose to it being strictly naturalistic/rational or supernatural. So while we might believe in miracles and what not we also believe that the universe is intelligable, and that it operates according to certain scientific principles that were ordained by God when he made “all that was seen and unseen.”
    As for our biblical scholars, I don’t see them as undermining traditional Christianity at all, The Church doesn’t even affirm inerrancy in the traditional sense of the word, all we have to say about the subject is that “God put in all that was needed for salvation into our text”. 
    As for the comment about us sending the others to the “dogs” , what does that even mean?

  • Gary

    I was reading a very interesting article James had listed under “interesting things on other blogs”, titled “Why Can Judaism Embrace Science So Easily”,
    Very interesting. Considering Jews follow the OT, and some of my problems with literalism relate to the OT.
    1. The Bible is almost never read simply literally
    2. Questioning is not only acceptable—it’s encouraged
    3. There is no fixed, systematic theology
    Pretty good article. I especially like #2. Can’t be for “antidisestablishmentarianism”
    and question anything.