by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out this December.
The First Amendment to the Constitution has never been in so much precarity. The forces of nationalism have induced a substantial portion of the American population into a trance, and while under this hypnotic spell a revised version of history has been placed in their minds and hearts. Faced with a withering bombardment from anti-historians, the American people are being told that our nation was founded by born-again evangelicals. More than this, they are being told that America is a Christian nation, and that Americans are God’s new chosen people.
The battering ram of Christian nationalism has joined forces with these apocalyptic horses arrayed against democracy. According to a 2021 Pew poll, 34% of white evangelicals believe that the federal government should “stop enforcing separation of church and state,” and 35% assert that the “federal government should declare U.S. a Christian nation” (in contrast with, respectively, 19% and 15% of the general population).
These commitments are traitorous. A harsh word, to be sure. But a true word.
The Baptists were the original architects of the First Amendment. But now Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, are betraying the First Amendment. Once upon a time Baptists knew that America was not founded as a Christian nation. Once upon a time they knew, from harsh experience, why the church needed to be separate from the government. Now, like Judas taking his 30 pieces of silver, these Christians have succumbed to the illusion of secular political power.
They are traitors to the First Amendment.
Using historical analogies, I offer pictures from our past to make the connections to the armies that have allied to destroy America. If this sounds too belligerent, too presumptive, I can only note that the forces opposed to democracy, while claiming to support democracy, are unrelenting enemies of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The forces of “demolition” have aimed all their weapons at the wall of separation.
Here are the words causing all the commotion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is clear why the founding fathers made this the First Amendment, because here are contained the foundational pillars of democracy: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of the people to assemble.” Undo the First Amendment, and democracy devolves into chaos.
Will Campbell, with piercing clarity, cried:
There are lies being told about the Bible and America by people who should know better, and probably do. They pose as the Messiah’s evangelists on programs subsidized with tax exemptions and protected by the same First Amendment they frequently denounce. They clothe a blatantly political agenda in pious rhetoric and peddle it as gospel.
Will, Baptist that he was, was protecting the wall of separation between church and state.
My first historical analogy is Benedict Arnold. He was an American military officer who served during the Revolutionary War. He fought with distinction for the American Continental Army and rose to the rank of major general before defecting to the British side of the conflict in 1780. General George Washington had given him his fullest trust and had placed him in command of West Point in New York. Arnold was planning to surrender the fort there to British forces, but the plot was discovered in September 1780, whereupon he fled to the British lines. In the later part of the conflict, Arnold was commissioned as a brigadier general in the British Army, and placed in command of the American Legion. He led the British army in battle against the soldiers whom he had once commanded, after which his name became synonymous with treason and betrayal.
Robert Jeffress is a leading evangelical and Southern Baptist pastor. He is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. As a Southern Baptist, he was taught that Baptists are fierce defenders of the wall of separation.
But now Jeffress has defected, making the treasonous claim that the disestablishment clause in the First Amendment was meant to apply solely to Protestant denominations. Historian John Fea says,
I do not have the space …. to counter in depth the false and problematic claims Jeffress makes …. But it is worth noting that his manipulation of the past to advance his Christian right agenda and scare his congregation into political action comes straight out of the playbook of David Barton.
Barton is the poison well from which Jeffress and his fellow evangelicals have been drinking for the past thirty years. Incredibly, Barton named his organization WallBuilders. A man who has given his entire ministry to tearing down the wall of separation between church and state, had the nerve to call his organization, WallBuilders. They hypocrisy masks the insidious attempt to destroy not only the First Amendment but democracy. Jeffress is the Benedict Arnold of Baptists, but he has plenty of company, and the creator of this kind of treason is David Barton.
A second historical analogy: General Robert Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, at the Battle of Gettysburg. Sensing an opportunity to defeat the Union army and secure victory for the Confederacy, Lee threw everything he had at the center of the Union lines. In the assault, popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge,” General George Pickett’s soldiers marched across the shell-swept field and temporarily broke the Union line, marking the high-water mark of the Confederacy and becoming a glorious moment in the story of the Lost Cause.. And this despite the fact that Pickett’s soldiers returned to Seminary Ridge, broken and shattered, with over half of the division killed, wounded, or captured.
If the assault on the First Amendment can be metaphorically linked to the Battle of Gettysburg, then the commanding general leading the charge at the point of the “breach” in the wall is the prophet of American nationalism, William “Dutch” Sheets.
Sheets, 68, is one of America’s most influential Christian voices demanding an end to the separation of church and state. Make no mistake, Sheets understands dismantling the wall to be only the opening salvo in an all-out attack on democracy, an attack that has only one purpose in mind: the ruling of the nation by right-wing Christians.
As Tim Dickinson details in a recent Rolling Stone article, Sheets told the crowd at a July 01 worship event that “we must marry these two arenas — the civil and the sacred. They are not separate in Scripture,” he added, then insisted, “God never intended for it to be separate.” Sheets has even produced what he dubs the “Watchman Decree,” which “reads like a Christian nationalist pledge of allegiance.” At the worship event he led the crowd in reciting the Decree:
“As a patriot of faith, I attest my allegiance first and foremost to the Kingdom of God and the Great Commission,” Sheets began . . . He then led the crowd in a series of theocratic declarations, including:
“We, the Church, are God’s governing Body on the Earth.”
“We have been given legal power and authority from Heaven.”
“We are . . . delegated by Him to destroy every attempted advance of the enemy.”
The audience then read aloud, with Sheets, a list of 13 decrees, including that the three branches of U.S. government will “honor God,” “write only laws that are righteous,” and only “issue rulings that are biblical.” The congregation continued, in unison, “We declare that we stand against wokeness, the occult, and every evil attempt against our nation.” They concluded with Sheets’ trademark spiritual battle cry: “We decree that America shall be saved!”
Sheets and his band of Christian nationalists have nothing positive to offer us. They have no policies for the common good. They are a scurrilous bunch of negative whiners and complainers. They are angry and disgruntled. They talk and act as if they are being persecuted and displaced. These are middle class white people who somehow have convinced themselves that people are taking from them what is rightfully theirs. They point the finger, wink the eye, speak evil, and attack our democratic institutions and norms. In short, they are a present and imminent danger to democracy.
A counterattack happens here and now. In Isaiah 58 there is an amazing metaphor – “repairer of the breach.” I offer the vision of Isaiah as a response to the idolatry of Christian nationalists. Isaiah 58 offers a precursor to the social gospel, a vision for how America can be a great nation, a servant nation, a “good neighbor” to all the nations of the world.
God desires a servant nation. “Repairing the breach” includes actions such as “Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
The repairer of the breach will break every yoke. They will refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing their own interests on God’s holy day; from going their own ways, serving their own interests, or pursuing their own affairs.
My question: “Where on the wall of separation do you want me?” We will repair the breach and build the wall thicker and higher than before.
No one has as much horrific experience with the persecution and genocide that often follows the breakdown of the separation of church and state as the Jews. My dear friend, David Sofian, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel (Dayton OH) joined me for more than a decade in the fight to maintain the wall of separation. He wrote to me at one point: “Build the wall higher, wider, and thicker.”
The result of standing in the gap to repair the breach elicits a promise from Almighty God: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly …. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58: 10, 12).
At the end of my ministry, please have somebody engrave these words on my tombstone: “A Repairer of the Breach.”