Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"Echoes of fundamentalism"

The Associated Baptist Press has distributed a story by Robert Marus about the Seventh Day Baptist decision to remain affiliated with the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC). In it, this blog is quoted:
“The BJC has pursued a doctrinaire ‘wall of separation’ position with respect to the [First Amendment’s] establishment clause,” wrote James Skaggs, a retired Wisconsin teacher, in a June 5 entry on his “One Eternal Day” blog ( Skaggs has been an outspoken opponent of continued Seventh Day Baptist affiliation with BJC.

“In alliance with a wide array of liberal religious and non-religious groups, it has filed briefs encouraging the courts to adopt that view,” Skaggs noted. “The cumulative effect of such court decisions is to reduce the ability of religion to influence government policy and to prevent government from using religious institutions for social good. It has also been a vehicle used by anti-religious groups in America to increasingly remove religion from the public square.”

Skaggs' arguments echoed those used by fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention. In the 1980s, they began an effort — ultimately successful — to withdraw from the BJC. The move cut off the groups largest supporter, nearly crippling it. But the BJC has rebounded since.
Interesting. I wonder how the Associated Baptist Press defines "fundamentalist" in this context. It is a term seldom used in a non-pejorative sense these days. From The Associated Press Stylebook as quoted at GetReligion:
fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.
The BJC issues had little to do with theology, and a great deal to do with church/state relations in Constitutional law and American history. If my arguments echoed those of "fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention" (few of whose arguments I have read), they also echoed the arguments of First Things Roman Catholics and evangelicals, or National Review lawyers, or of social or traditionalist conservatives of no religious faith. It would probably have been better to simply summarize the arguments rather than attempt to draw parallels with controversies in other denominations — and thus risk committing "guilt by association."

Seventh Day Baptists to stay in Baptist Joint Committee


  1. Help me to understand from whence you come. The ABP article that quoted you seemed to indicate you are displeased that the BJC is working alongside liberals and secularists in fighting for separation of church and state. However, as you will recall from Baptist history, in the 17th and 18th centuries Baptists were liberals who fought alongside secularists ... and against conservative, theocratic governments ... to secure separation of church and state. Are you thus renouncing your own Baptist heritage? -- Bruce Gourley (

  2. No, I support the separation of church and state, as do almost all Americans - not just Baptists. If you read the various posts I've done on the subject, you will discover that I agree with most of the "free exercise" cases the BJC has pursued - but then almost all religious groups do. The opposition to those cases is more likely to come from secularists and modern liberals that from any of the historical advocates of state religion.

    My difficulty comes in the "establishment clause" cases - where it seems to me lawyers and courts have often gone much further than is justified.

    It does seem to me that what comprises Baptist identity is a bit broader than you imply.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. I would offer the observation, however, that most conservative Baptists I know do not support the separation of church and state ... which is a travesty, that so many modern Baptists have turned their back on their own heritage (more properly, most do not even know their own faith heritage).

  4. Mr. Skaggs,

    I too have followed this story closely. The "fundamentalist parallel" was indeed fair. In at least one or two of your posts, you cited heavily from the research of Roger Moran of MBLA. Roger Moran is notorious for his smear campaigns. Your quotes that presented James Dunn (who retired nearly a decade ago) in a negative light were similar to the "tactics" used by Moran and other SBC fundamentalists during the 80's and into the 90's.

    However, your disagreement with the BJC seemed overall to be quite civil and you presented thoughtful arguments. The SBC's battle to defund the BJC was anything but civil.

  5. I don't believe it was fair. I quoted once from a Missouri layman's site [Moran?], but only a list of the chapters in a book the BJC endorsed. I am acquainted with James Dunn. I don't believe anything I said about him could be properly characterized as a "smear." He is intemperate.

    In any event "fundamentalist" has become a loaded term with very little relationship to the theological position it once described. It is now simply used to lump together indiscriminately extremists of various sorts, political and religious.

    Thanks for the remarks about the quality of our debate. I think our political culture may differ a bit from some other Baptists.

  6. Anonymous11:09 AM

    Mr. Skaggs, I'm sorry you view the parallel I drew or my use of the term "fundamentalists" to describe the people who took over the SBC in the 1980s as unfair, but it has been our style to use the term to refer to the party that turned the SBC sharply to the right. It distinguishes them from "moderates." If I were to use the terms "conservatives" and "liberals" or "progressives," then many other people would be upset. Many, many people who opposed the so-called "conservative resurgence" in the SBC and who support the BJC and its view of the Establishment Clause would, nonetheless, consider themselves "conservatives." Journalists never seem to be able to make everybody happy when using terminology to characterize/distinguish two warring political camps -- but especially when those two camps are within the same religious tradition.

  7. Thanks for the explanation.

    Do those you characterize as "fundamentalists" call themselves that, or is it a term applied to them by their critics?

  8. Anonymous11:05 AM

    Many of the SBC ultra-conservatives do, in fact, embrace the term "fundamentalist." Many dislike it. And many on the pro-"conservative resurgence" side use the term pejoratively against people in their own camp (for instance, the younger crop of SBC blogger-reformers when referring to Paige Patterson and other patriarchs ofthe "conservative resurgence" old guard).

    I sometimes use the term "liberal" to describe someone who would not use the term to describe himself or herself. Would you describe Hillary Clinton as a "liberal?" She wouldn't, nor would a lot of truly liberal Democrats who consider her too centrist.

    As I mentioned above, you can never exhaustively and accurately describe someone's ideological or political affiliations with the kind of terminology that is necessary to convey the greatest meaning to the largest number of readers possible in a news story. If I tried to, my stories would all be 3,000 words long and be so complex as to make an academic journal editor blush.

  9. True enough. But "fundamentalist" has, as the AP points out "taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians...." The term doesn't apply to me, nor, as you say, to "many on the pro-'conservative resurgence'" side. It has probably lost its usefulness as a descriptive term.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.


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