As the end of May approaches, most colleges and universities in the United States have already conferred degrees upon their graduates. A long and arduous day punctuates the final exercises, which display the accomplishments of the graduates to their friends and families. Part and parcel of that process is the commencement address, which few in attendance remember. (William Raspberry delivered the address at my own graduation ceremony twenty years ago. He was my favorite progressive columnist at the time, I was glad he was there, and I do not remember a single thing he said.) For the speaker, it is an honor to be invited to give a commencement address; for the graduates, it is often a final test of their mettle to endure a lecture.
Few graduation day speakers seem to grasp this reality, but former President George W. Bush does. While delivering the graduation keynote address at Southern Methodist University last Saturday (May 17, 2015) he succinctly articulated this, stating “What I have learned about graduation speeches is that they’re too long and rarely remembered. So I’ll keep this short. I just can’t attest to how memorable it will be.” And yet, his speech ought to be remembered, especially by evangelicals. It ought to be remembered, not because of the folksy humor woven throughout, humor that had all but the most vociferous anti-Bushites laughing. Nor should it be remembered for his unflagging optimism about the future, but for his bold proclamation about the nature of religious liberty in the United States of America in the twenty-first century.
Without a doubt, American evangelicals embraced George W. Bush, overwhelmingly supporting him at polls in 2000 and 2004 and publicly backing many of his policy decisions during his two terms in office. Possessed of a credible conversion testimony and open about his faith, Bush’s religiosity resonated with many evangelicals. Many were proud to have one of their own in office, something that had not happened since the “disappointment” of Jimmy Carter.
Building on his optimism for the future, Bush articulated his vision of religious liberty in the fourth-to-last paragraph of his speech: “And finally, you can be hopeful because there is a loving God. Whether you agree with that statement or not is your choice. It is not your government’s choice. It is essential to this nation’s future that we remember that the freedom to worship who we want, and how we want—or not worship at all—is a core belief of our founding.”
As public speakers are wont to do, Bush simplified the complexities associated with freedom of worship. He also sanitized the founding, ignoring just how comfortable many of the founders were with establishment, something Tommy Kidd wrote about yesterday on The Anxious Bench. At the same time, Bush articulated a version of religious liberty, which pivots on freedom of worship, something that twenty-first century evangelicals ought to endorse and defend–both for themselves and for others. Baptists especially ought to find Bush’s position compelling, grounding it as he did in liberty of conscience. Earlier in the speech, Bush laid the foundation for his advocacy for freedom of worship by recapitulating his 2003 State of the Union address in which he asserted that “the liberty we [American’s] prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.”
Such a position, when applied to religious liberty, resonates with historic Baptist convictions on the matter. Baptist voices from the past, including Thomas Helwys, Leonard Busher, John Clarke, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus and John Leland, defended freedom of conscience in matters of religion. The great historic Baptist confessions of yesteryear such as the First London Confession (1644), The Standard Confession (1660), and The Philadelphia Confession (1742) all articulate similar sentiments.
Among Southern Baptists, George Truett expressed his own position in describing “Baptists “of all ages” as “protagonists of religious liberty, not only for themselves… but everyone else as well,” while E.Y. Mullins made religious liberty part of the implications of his doctrine of “soul competency.” Building on Mullins’ position, all three versions of The Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, and 2000) express an unchanged conviction regarding religious liberty: “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power (emphasis mine).”
Unlike many of their Puritan cousins, 17th and 18th century Baptists in America often defended liberty of conscience and advocated for an elision of as much compulsion in matters of religion as could be accomplished. They often did so even when such liberties, if granted, would undermine their own religious cause, believing that compulsion only yielded the poison fruit of false conversion. This does not mean that they did not actively seek to persuade others to abandon their “false beliefs” and embrace Baptist convictions, but it did mean that they defended their right to hold to those “false beliefs” in a free society. Further, they allied themselves with those who shared their convictions on this “first freedom,” including Thomas Jefferson, whose heterodox religious beliefs were well attested.
As a commencement to the rest of the twenty-first century, Baptists (and other American evangelicals) would do well to embrace the vision of religious liberty that President Bush articulated at SMU. We ought to seek to persuade others to believe the gospel as we do, yet remain committed to their freedom to reject it. As we do so, we distinguish ourselves and our society from those who desire to compel religious adherence (“belief” does not really work here) and silence religious dissent either here or abroad.