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More About That Push for “State-Level Christianity” (Shaking My Head…)

July 13, 2022

Heads up: It’s Political!

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On July 06, 2022, I wrote how Pennsylvania retired teacher and blogger, Peter Greene, brought to my attention an organized push “to disincorporate the Establishment Clause (no state religion)” in an effort for individual states “to establish religion within their borders.”

In that post, I mentioned transcribing the words of two Christian pastors, one who is pushing the idea of officially-sactioned, state-level Christianity, and another who suggests that Americans in general should focus on fighting division itself. My first post highlighted the refreshing words of the latter, Andy Stanley of Atlanta, Georgia.

Now I turn my attention to the other guy– Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, Texas.

In his July 03, 2022, televised sermon, “America Is a Christian Nation,” Jeffress argues that the point of the First Amendment is to prevent a national declaration of religion. However, he argues, that since in the early years of our nation individual states had adopted given Christian denominations as the official state religions, and Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to Connecticut residents that no Christian denomination should take precedence over another, then individual states declaring adherence to general Christian beliefs is what the founders intended.

So, Jeffress is among those promoting the idea that individual states officially endorse Christianity as a state religion.

I transcribed Jeffress’ July 03, 2022, sermon, which is based on a book he wrote of the same title and also roughly related to two radio podcasts (dated July 01 and 04, 2022) that according to the intro on the first one, he has apparently delivered before. So, Jeffress is not new in advising against the Establishment Clause on the state level.

Below are some excerpts from the trascription:

First of all, let’s look at the spiritual beliefs of our founders. Were they neutral toward Christianity? Hardly; 52 of the 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention were orthodox, conservative Christians. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were Deists, but even these men understood the importance of a spiritual foundation for our country.

Benjamin Franklin believed that the Continental Congress should begin the session seeking the favor of God through prayer. Franklin said, quote, “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: That God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings that except the Lord build, they labor in vain that built it.”

That was Benjamin Franklin.

Consider also the state constitutions. Every state had their own constitution, and almost all of the 13 colonies prior to the Constitutional Convention had a state-sponsored religion. And you see this in the qualifications that every state had to go to the Constitutional Convention. For example, if you were from Delaware, listen to one of the things you had to subscribe to. Article 22 of the Delaware Convention (misspoke; should be “constitution”) said, quote: “Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust. …shall. …make and subscribe to the following declaration, to wit:’ I [First Name, Last Name], do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, One God blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures to the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.'”

You say, “Well, pastor, what about the wall of separation between the church and the state?”

Never once do you find the words, “the separation of church and state,” and yet today, 69 percent of Americans still believe that that phrase is found somewhere in the Constitution. It’s not in the Constitution, and we’ll see in just a moment where that phrase originated. In fact, the first mention of that phrase, “the wall of separation between church and state,” doesn’t appear in a government document.

It appears in a private letter from newly-elected president Thomas Jefferson and a a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. In 1801, almost every state had state-sponsored religion. They were Christian denominations. They were Christian religions, but they were different denominations according to the state in which you lived. It so happened in Connecticut that the Congregational Church was the state-sponsored denomination in the state of Connecticut. And so, part of people’s tax dollars in Connecticut went to support the Congregational Church. Well, the Baptists didn’t like that very much. And so, they would petition the government every year for the tax dollars that had gone to the Congregational Church to be redirected toward their church, and they were tired of having to go through that hassle. So, on January 01, 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter in response to their earlier letter. And listen to what he said: “I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people, which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'”– he’s quoting the First Amendment– “thus building a wall of separation between the church and state.”

Now I want you to notice the context. The context had to do with the establishing of one Christian denomination as the state religion– which people were coerced to support financially. And it was in that context that Thomas Jefferson said no, we are not to establish a state church that coerces people to worship. We are not to elevate one Christian denomination over another. That is clearly the context.

One more I want to share with you. Vidal v Girard’s Executors, 1844. This was a very complicated case, but the gist of it is this: A man, a very wealthy man in Philadelphia, died and in his will, he stipulated that the proceeds of his estate would be used to support a school for orphans. They would call that a “college” back then, but it was a school for orphans, but he had one stipulation, and that is, no Christian clergymen could be allowed to teach in his school.

Well, the people of Pennsylvania were upset by that. They were upset that you would have a school in which Christianity couldn’t be taught. But the Supreme Court of the United States upheld that man’s will, using this logic. They said the fact that you don’t have a Christian minister teaching doesn’t mean the principles of Christianity can’t be taught, or shouldn’t be taught, and this is what the Supreme Court said. Quote: “Why may not the bible, and especially the New Testamant, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the college; its general precepts expounded; its evidences explained, and its glorious principles of morality inculcated?”

There’s no reason not to teach the bible in this school and to treat it as the Word of God and to teach its morality to students.

Likewise, the court said in the same ruling that we don’t have to worry about parity, what effect such a ruling would have on nonchristian rulings. Listen to this, again, amazing: “It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider what would be the legal effect of a device in Pennsylvania, for the establishment of a school or college for the propagation of Judaism, or Deism, or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country.”

How do you explain this shift? What has happened in the last 60 or 70 years? Has the Constitution changed, and somebody didn’t tell us?

No. What happened is this: We’ve allowed the atheists, the secularists, the infidels to pervert our Constitution into something our founders never intended. And we cannot allow that to happen any longer.

It is time for us to stand up and say without apology America was founded as a Christian nation.

Consider God’s warning to his own people, the nation of Israel– a warning that is just as applicable to us today as it was 3,000 years ago. In Hosea 4, verse 6, God says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”

God is no respecter of people or nations. The nation that reverences God will be blessed by God. The nation that rejects God will be rejected by God. The choice is ours.

I selected the excerpts above to offer readers a sense of what Jeffress is promoting from his pulpit, but also to highlight two key weakness in his argument:

First of all, Jeffress admits that two of America’s founders, Jefferson and Franklin, were Deists, and he is quick to excuse them for not being the Chrsitians he intended to focus on (“Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were Deists, but even these men understood the importance of a spiritual foundation for our country.”) However, in subsequently quoting the Vidal v Girard’s Executors’ ruling, Jeffress notes that the judge classed Deism along with “other forms of infidelity.” Nevertheless, Jeffress quotes both Deists Franklin and Jefferson in his Christian sermon. Shall listeners conclude that these two Deists are infidels that Jeffress has let off the hook?

Second, according to the ruling in the same case, Judaism also falls into the “infidelity” class. Yet Jeffress ends his semon with a quote from the book of Hosea– an Old Testament document that predates Christ and whose audience– the nation of Israel– is clearly Jewish. Jeffress tells listeners that they should not extend the meaning of the words of America’s founders beyond their context even as he takes the liberty of directing Hosea’s Old Testament language as a word for today’s Christians.

But these are minor points in the greater scheme.

Observe that Jeffress mentions the First Amendment, but he does not mention the Ninth Amendment, which demonstrates that the framers of the Constitution knew they could not possibly list all rights and therefore created a catch-all of sorts:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

As Cornell Law cites from Griswold v Connecticut:

…the Ninth Amendment shows a belief of the Constitution’s authors that fundamental rights exist that are not expressly enumerated in the first eight amendments and an intent that the list of rights included there not be deemed exhaustive.

Surely one can reasonably conclude that any US state adopting even a general Christianity as a state religion would infringe upon the freedom of its citizens and would, as a result of such infringement, sow discord among them.

In pushing for US-state-level Christianity, Jeffress fails to consider that doing so would violate the Ninth Amendment.

Next, in his discussion of Thomas Jefferson (one of those two off-the-hook, Deist founders), Jeffress does not mention that in September 1789, Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison in which Jefferson proposed “that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law” because “the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead.” Jefferson’s idea was that subsequent generations of American citizens should not be locked into a government that suited one generation but is ill-fitted for the next. Some more about his idea of a “generational constitution”:

The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

Of course, one could reason that amending the Constitution is a means of addressing Jefferson’s concerns about the living being ruled in perpetuity by the dead– including being denied freedoms that simply did not cross the minds or experience of former generations.

Consider, for example, that the idea of each US state choosing its own state-endorsed version of Christianity may have seemed to that generation as freedom. At the same time, notice that Jeffress himself cites that the issue of the general populus being forced to fund a state-selected denomination caused discord and that because of this discord, Jefferson advised against the state choosing any one Christian denomination above another. The point is that in his written response, Jefferson was trying to quell discord. In 21st-century America, you can be certain that any state declaring any religion, Christian or otherwise, as the official state religion would present a hornet’s nest in discord and would violate the Ninth Amendment.

One more observation about Jeffress’ July 03, 2022, drive for America to “return to Christian values”:

Given Jeffress’ association with the Southern Baptist Convention, is incredibly hypocritical.

Not even two months prior, a formal report of the pervasive sexual abuse among Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leadership– including the longstanding, concerted effort to silence the victims in a culture of sexual exploitation in order for those in power to retain power– hit the national news– which makes it really rich to hear Jeffress declaring that America be forced into a state-dictated morality that his own Christian denomination has so royally violated.

Numerous men holding positions of leadership in the Southern Bapstist Convention have been sexually abusing parishoners as they and others worked to actively conceal that abuse and intimidate victims for years, which led to an independent investigation and subsequent, shocking report made public in May 2022. Below are some awful details from Kate Shellnutt in the May 22, 2022, Christianity Today:

Armed with a secret list of more than 700 abusive pastors, Southern Baptist leaders chose to protect the denomination from lawsuits rather than protect the people in their churches from further abuse.

Survivors, advocates, and some Southern Baptists themselves spent more than 15 years calling for ways to keep sexual predators from moving quietly from one flock to another. The men who controlled the Executive Committee (EC)—which runs day-to-day operations of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—knew the scope of the problem. But, working closely with their lawyers, they maligned the people who wanted to do something about abuse and repeatedly rejected pleas for help and reform.

“Behind the curtain, the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits,” according to a massive third-party investigative report released Sunday.

The investigation centers responsibility on members of the EC staff and their attorneys and says the hundreds of elected EC trustees were largely kept in the dark. EC general counsel Augie Boto and longtime attorney Jim Guenther advised the past three EC presidents—Ronnie Floyd, Frank Page, and Morris Chapman—that taking action on abuse would pose a risk to SBC liability and polity, leading the presidents to challenge proposed abuse reforms.

As renewed calls for action emerged with the #ChurchToo and #SBCToo movements, Boto referred to advocacy for abuse survivors as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Survivors, in turn, described the soul-crushing effects of not only their abuse, but the stonewalling, insulting responses from leaders at the EC for 15-plus years.

Christa Brown, a longtime advocate who experienced sexual abuse by her pastor at 16, said her “countless encounters with Baptist leaders” who shunned and disbelieved her “left a legacy of hate” and communicated “you are a creature void of any value—you don’t matter.” As a result, she said, instead of her faith providing solace, her faith has become “neurologically networked with a nightmare.” She referred to it as “soul murder.”

Another victim, Debbie Vasquez, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an SBC pastor starting at the age of 14. When one assault led to her pregnancy, she was forced to apologize in front of the church but forbidden to mention the father. The pastor went on to serve at another Southern Baptist church, and when Vasquez reached out to the EC, her entreaties were ignored and evaded for years until a Houston Chronicle investigation three years ago.

Over the past 20 years, meanwhile, a string of SBC presidents failed to appropriately respond to abuse in their own churches and seminaries. In several instances, leaders sided with individuals and churches that had been credibly accused of abuse or cover-up. One former president—pastor Johnny Hunt—sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010, investigators found.

“How many kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only the Executive Committee had taken action back in 2006 when I first wrote to them, urging specific concrete steps? And how many survivors could have been spared the re-traumatizing hell of trying to report clergy sex abuse into a system that consistently turns its back?” asked Brown in a 2021 letter. “The SBC Executive Committee’s longstanding resistance to abuse reforms has now yielded a whole new crop of clergy sex abuse victims and of survivors re-traumatized in their efforts to report.”

The report represents a $2 million undertaking, involving 330 interviews and five terabytes of documents collected over eight months. The EC also committed another $2 million toward legal costs around the investigation—making it a total investment of $4 million, funded by churches and conventions giving to the Cooperative Program.

Advocate Rachael Denhollander, who advised the SBC task force that coordinated the investigation, tweeted that “the level of transparency is … unparalleled.” It’s the largest investigation in SBC history; it’s already changed the makeup of the EC and stands to determine the trajectory of the 177-year-old denomination.

The Guidepost inquiry included privileged legal communications on abuse over the past 20 years, a provision that led EC president Ronnie Floyd to resign in October and the law firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price to withdraw their services after 60 years.

According to the report, the law firm actively advised the EC against taking responsibility for abuse. Guenther worked alongside Boto, an attorney who was involved in the EC from the 1990s to 2019, serving as a trustee, vice president, general counsel, and interim president. He was an ally of Paige Patterson during the Conservative Resurgence. (Last year, Boto was barred from holding any positions with Southern Baptist entities as a result of a legal settlement involving financial moves after Patterson was fired from an SBC seminary over mishandling a rape allegation.)

Boto and Guenther turned every discussion of abuse to a discussion of protecting the EC from legal liability, making that the highest priority, the report said.

“When abuse allegations were brought to the EC, including allegations that convicted sex offenders were still in ministry, EC leaders generally did not discuss this information outside of their inner circle, often did not respond to the survivor, and took no action to address these allegations so as to prevent ongoing abuse or such abuse in the future,” the report said. “Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches.”

As president at Southeastern and Southwestern seminaries, Patterson discouraged two women who shared rape allegations from reporting them. He was fired from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 over his response and has been sued, along with the seminary, by the female student from Southwestern.

Patterson’s associate Paul Pressler, an attorney and leader during the Conservative Resurgence, also faces litigation over claims that he used his power to abuse young boys, and the SBC itself is named in the suit. (Neither Patterson nor Pressler, a former executive VP of the SBC and former EC member, agreed to be interviewed for the investigation, though Patterson’s lawyers submitted a two-page document.)

Houston Chronicle, 02/10/19

America is a Christian nation, huh?

Really?

When the news broke of the release of the SBC report, one of the first responses I read was by former SBC director, Russell Moore. Some excerpts:

Someone asked me a few weeks ago what I expected from the third-party investigation into the handling of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. I said I didn’t expect to be surprised at all. How could I be? I lived through years with that entity. I was the one who called for such an investigation in the first place.

And yet, as I read the report, I found that I could not swipe the screen to the next page because my hands were shaking with rage. That’s because, as dark a view as I had of the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.

The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama. It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves, including former SBC president Johnny Hunt (who was one of the only figures in SBC life who seemed to be respected across all of the typical divides).

For years, leaders in the Executive Committee said a database—to prevent sexual predators from quietly moving from one church to another, to a new set of victims—had been thoroughly investigated and found to be legally impossible, given Baptist church autonomy. My mouth fell open when I read documented proof in the report that these very people not only knew how to have a database, they already had one.

Allegations of sexual violence and assault were placed, the report concludes, in a secret file in the SBC Nashville headquarters. It held over 700 cases. Not only was nothing done to stop these predators from continuing their hellish crimes, staff members were reportedly told not to even engage those asking about how to stop their child from being sexually violated by a minister. Rather than a database to protect sexual abuse victims, the report reveals that these leaders had a database to protect themselves.

Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.

Cooperation is a good and biblical ideal, but cooperation must not be to “protect the base.” Those who have used such phrases know what they meant. They know that if one steps out of line, one will be shunned as a liberal or a Marxist or a feminist. They know that the meanest people will mobilize and that the “good guys” will keep silent. And that’s nothing—nothing—compared to what is endured by sexual abuse victims—including children—who have no “base.”

When my wife and I walked out of the last SBC Executive Committee meeting we would ever attend, she looked at me and said, “I love you, I’m with you to the end, and you can do what you want, but if you’re still a Southern Baptist by summer you’ll be in an interfaith marriage.” This is not a woman given to ultimatums, in fact that was the first one I’d ever heard from her. But she had seen and heard too much. And so had I.

Russell Moore drew the line and left the Southern Baptist church. Proof of the in-your-face corruption was enough.

Here’s what Moore had to say about religious liberty, from a 2014 interview:

…When we are saying we are standing for religious liberty, we are not just standing for religious liberty for ourselves. It is not as though we are saying, “Let’s try to get enough votes so that conservative evangelicals have liberty or Southern Baptists have liberty, and we take that away from everyone else.” We are saying, “No, no, if we are gospel people, then that means you cannot impose your religion on anyone else, because religion is not something you can have issued to you by the state; it has to happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.” … Whenever the government comes in and says, “You cannot freely practice and exercise your religion,” the government is setting up a religion of some sort or another. They are saying, “This is what the religion is that we are giving you from the government.” So, we are standing for religious liberty for everybody precisely because we do believe the gospel.

Liberty that is not for everybody is not liberty.

In contrast to Moore’s SBC exit, in response to the profound sexual abuses and concerted coverup in the SBC, Jeffress publicly condemned the abuse, but he chose not to publicly condemn the SBC, and, apparently feeling comfortable enough to retain the association, he stayed.

He stayed, and from the pulpit of his SBC church, he would smother America under a superficial morality that his own denomination has already profoundly torn to shreds.

Robert Jeffress calling climate change “an imaginary crisis.” Newsweek, 09/15/19

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2 Comments
  1. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Mercedes, I think you have a unique viewpoint here, that allows you to explain to non-religious people how devastating it is to see the corruption of Christianity in the service of power. You’re always teaching.

    I can only imagine how disturbing all of this must be for you.

  2. Taxation for the support of institutions which cannot be held accountable on democratic grounds for that support violates a principle over which one Revolution has already been fought. I should think one were sufficient but maybe not.

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