What Makes Baptist Political Theology?

by Thomas Kidd July 3, 2023

The distinctive Baptist contribution to political theology is the doctrine of religious freedom and disestablishment. You will find some mention of religious freedom in almost every chapter of this book. But why? And what does religious freedom mean for the whole body of political theology? Is it the only thing we have to say about politics?

An inner logic connects adult baptism, conversion, religious freedom, and disestablishment. Baptism is a ritual that marks the entry of a penitent person into the church community by symbolizing the washing away of sin, the death of the old self and resurrection of the new self. Such a ritual has no meaning for infants or children who have no awareness or understanding of sin, repentance, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. No one can enter the kingdom of God apart from a conscious, inward, informed turning away from sin and toward Christ—a turning that we call repentance and faith. And if people cannot enter the kingdom, they should not be counted full members of the local church, which is an embassy of the kingdom. The church should strive to have a membership made entirely of regenerate Christians, baptized adults who have made a public profession of faith and covenanted together to hold one another accountable for walking in holiness.

By the same logic, no adult can be coerced into the kingdom—or the church—at the point of the sword. Our doctrine of baptism and the church is the seed from which grows an entire panoply of implications about the state. The state may coerce someone into attending the right church, uttering the right creed, and even comporting their behavior to the appearance of outward righteousness—none of which makes the least contribution to a person’s actual salvation. We call this the doctrine of “soul competency,” the idea that each person is accountable to God for himself or herself and no other authority is ultimately able to effect another’s salvation. It is pointless for the state to use its tools, which touch outward behavior, to try to compel inward belief.

Worse, it is dangerous. The state has an educative function. When it passes laws, it habituates people to believe, even if unconsciously, that those laws reflect standards of good and evil. When the state makes laws endorsing, establishing, or regulating religion, it teaches people to rely on the state’s judgment, rather than the church’s or the words of Scripture, for their salvation. Imagine a citizen goes to church and recites a creed because the state tells him to. That citizen is at grave risk of believing he is a Christian because he is performing the appropriate deeds—without any reference at all to the saving work of Christ on the cross. State-endorsed (and, much more so, state-mandated) religion always has strong tendencies toward a religion of works. And there are further dangers, including the long history of states hijacking religion to use as propaganda for whatever political purpose the ruler has in mind. State religion cheapens religion, turning religious authorities into cheerleaders and boosters of the status quo, with all its injustices, and of whomever exercises power, regardless of what that power is used for. State religion has no prophetic witness and no independent voice.

The idea of religious freedom and disestablishment is one of the most revolutionary ideas in world history. Virtually every state in history allied with a religion or, when they banned conventional religion, invented new ones (like communism). The Baptist doctrine of religious freedom amounts to a claim that every state in history got it wrong. It would be breathtaking in its audacity, except for subsequent history in which religious freedom spread worldwide and vindicated the belief that states and churches relate best when they are institutionally and jurisdictionally separate. Every state on earth has (at least on paper) agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18, which affirms that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[1]

Does the Baptist political witness end there? Do we have anything else to say? In fact, religious freedom and disestablishment, as revolutionary ideas, cannot but have far-reaching consequences throughout the full range of cultural, social, and political issues. Most importantly, religious freedom and disestablishment mean the state has limited jurisdiction. There are matters over which it has no legitimate authority. Religious freedom and disestablishment are thus intrinsically opposed to totalitarianism and, at least, highly suspicious of softer forms of authoritarianism. Totalitarian government is sinful and anti-Christian by its very nature; authoritarian government with no check on its power is inherently dangerous and carries the potential for overstepping its bounds. Baptists should be the first to warn against the encroaching power of states that try to grow beyond their rightful boundaries.

That means Baptists are naturally sympathetic to forms of government that recognize their own limits, have checks on their power, and respect the religious rights of their people. That natural sympathy is reinforced by Baptists’ own practice of congregational autonomy and self-government. Baptists practice self-government among themselves, which habituates them to its rhythms in society at large. That is why, in practice and in history, Baptists are almost exclusively republicans and democrats (with a small r and a small d) who believe in some version of representative government and in civil and political rights. That is not quite the same as saying that Baptists believe the Bible mandates democracy. We respect the authority of the Bible enough to reserve our strongest conclusions for what is explicit and clear in Scripture. But for Baptists, the logic linking biblical revelation to religious freedom and congregational autonomy and, thence, to free government is simpler and stronger than for any other Christian tradition. We have always thrown in our lot with free government. Most Christian traditions in the modern era support basic civil and political rights and find biblical support for them in the idea that all humans bear God’s image and have coequal moral worth. But Baptists add our distinctive doctrine of religious freedom and disestablishment, an additional bulwark against authoritarianism and a cornerstone of free government.

This is an especially needful truth to revive today. We live amidst an upsurge in nationalist sentiment and rising authoritarian powers, which bring twin dangers to the right relationship of church and state. On the one hand, nationalism has historically almost always come tinged with religious rhetoric, religious symbolism, and even religious demagoguery. Statesmen know the power of religion, and if they can tap into that power and redirect it to themselves, they will. On the other hand, in reaction, nationalists’ opponents often blame religious institutions and religious leaders, equate religion with the political agenda they oppose, and seek to shrink, ban, or silence religion in the public square. That means religion is in danger of hijacking by one side and proscription on the other; of being used and manipulated; and of being ignored, sidelined, and neglected.

In this context the Baptist political witness is crucial. More than any other Christian tradition, we can insist on the importance of disestablishment and warn of the dangers of being co-opted by those in power—at the same time and with the same framework that we insist on the vital necessity of religious freedom and a robust and vocal Christian presence in the public square. Christians must advocate for justice, peace, and flourishing—our Lord commands it of us—which means we must be active, present, and free to believe and speak. We must also insist on the state’s limitation and the church’s independence, which means our presence in the public square is never an effort to take it over in the name of serving it.

We have traveled a great distance from the seemingly small matter of believer’s baptism. But that is the legacy of revolutionary ideas. They work their way through the architecture of ideas and recenter relationships in new ways. And the Baptist revolution in religious freedom and disestablishment—in free government and republicanism—is not done yet.


[1] United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18, un.org, accessed October 27, 2022, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.


Editor’s Note: This article is taken from Baptist Political Theology and used by permission of B&H Academic. The book is now available everywhere Christian books are sold.