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Monday, July 27, 2015

James Dunn: A Baptist and a Patriot

In one of the ironies of American history both Thomas Jefferson and Sam Adams died within a few hours of one another on July 4th. This past July 4th another champion of religious liberty and disestablishment, James Dunn, also died. Dunn will never be as famous as Jefferson or Adams, but many in Washington (presidents, lobbyists, and members of Congress) will remember his tireless efforts to keep church and state separate as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now known as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty) from 1981-1999.

As I've posted previously the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) ("The Top Religious Liberty News Stories of 2014," "Religious Minorities and Religious Freedom"), which was founded in 1936 and is the only faith-based agency devoted solely to religious liberty and the institutional separation of church and state. It is composed of representatives of 15 national, state, and regional Baptist bodies in the United States, such as the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention (the Southern Baptist Convention used to support the BJC, but it cut its funding to the BJC in 1990, accusing the BJC of leaning too far to the theological left). The BJC limits its activities to a small number of issues related to religious liberty and the separation of church and state: church electioneering, civil religion, free exercise, government funding, political discourse, public prayer, and religious displays. It does file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs with the Supreme Court in order to argue on behalf of specific points at issue in a case. Over the years, the BJC has filed more than 120 legal briefs in court cases.

Dunn helped put the BJC on the map in DC. Under his leadership in the 1980s the BJC opposed sending an ambassador to the Vatican and fought against a constitutional prayer amendment. At the same time he worked with members of Congress to pass an alternative to the school prayer amendment, the Equal Access Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against any meetings (including religious meetings) of students in public secondary schools. Perhaps his crowning achievement was working with the Clinton administration in the 1990s to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which restored a number of religious freedom protections. Dunn used humor to disarm his opponents and is "famous" for once quipping, "Baptists have only one creed, and that is – 'Nobody can tell me what to believe, except Jesus.'"

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Here are a few more "Dunnisms" (from the BJC website - "Truth with the Bark on It: The Wit and Wisdom of James Dunn"):

“I’m a Texas-bred, Spirit-led, Bible-teaching, revival-preaching, recovering Southern Baptist. That’s neither a boast nor a whine, just an explanation of ‘where I’m coming from’ as the kids say.”
–Address to American Baptist Churches, 1995

“Religious freedom and church-state separation are a package deal.”
–Reflections, June 1, 1999

“When government claims to aid all religions, it never fails to play favorites.”
–Reflections, October 1985

“The trouble with a theocracy is everyone wants to be Theo!“
–A favorite classroom saying of James Dunn

“Like breathing in and breathing out, freedom and responsibility are two parts of one process.”
–Reflections, November/December 1984

“Freedom is not absolute. No one is ‘free as a bird.’ Only a bird is free as a bird. We are not free to deny basic freedoms to others. When anyone’s freedom is denied, everyone’s freedom is endangered. We are not free without responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are like two sides of a coin, inseparable. No matter how thin it is sliced, the coin of responsible freedom still has two sides. God made us able to respond, response able, responsible, and if responsible, free.”
–Linfield College Commencement, May 30, 1999

“The best thing government can do for religion is to leave it alone.”
–Reflections, October 1983

“No pastor or priest, no doctrine or disciple, no book or belief, no church or creed comes between the individual and God.”
–What Are We Stewards Of? 1993

“Dear Mr. Vice President. I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, you’ve ripped your britches.”
–Dunn to Vice President Al Gore when Gore backed federal funding for faith-based groups during his 2000 presidential campaign

“It is despicable demagoguery for the President to play petty politics with prayer. He knows that the Supreme Court has never banned prayer in schools. It can’t. Real prayer is always free.”
–Dunn statement on May 6, 1982, responding to President Ronald Reagan’s call for a constitutional amendment to permit public school-sponsored prayer

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