This article is in honor of James M. Dunn, who passed away a year ago, on July 4, 2015. Perhaps he is not widely known except by those who are, or have been, Baptists. But Dunn’s emphasis on Christianity citizenship is one that is badly needed by Christians of most denominations.
Mostly, though, his strong insistence on religious liberty and on the separation of church and state is very important for all citizens of this country, whether Christian or not.
Dunn was born in Texas in 1932; he lived, went to school, and worked in Texas until 1981 when he became Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), where he served until 1999. (Until 2005 the name was BJC for Public Affairs.)
Perhaps my first knowledge of Dunn came in the late 1970s. While he was still the Executive Director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, he and two associates wrote Endangered Species (1976), an excellent book about the problem of world hunger.
I was moved by the “fable” told at the beginning of the ninth chapter of that book, and I found it quite powerful when I read it again this month. (For those of you concerned about the hunger issue, I highly recommend reading that short fable.)
Dunn was also the editor of, and the author of two chapters in, Politics: A Guidebook for Christians (1970). He concludes “How to Get the Church into Politics” by saying, “The local church is suited to work in politics” (p. 59). Then, he ends the next chapter with these words: “The church must move into political issues” (p. 69).
Little did Dunn know then that the Moral Majority was going to be formed before the end of that decade, that the Christian Right was going to be moving mightily into the political arena, and that Ronald Reagan was going to be elected President at least in part because of the new political impetus of conservative Christians.
In response to those changes by conservative Christians and in the political arena, Dunn began to place more stress on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
In 2000 he and Grady C. Cothen alternated writing the 14 chapters of Soul Freedom. One of Dunn’s chapters is titled “Don’t Vouch for Vouchers.” His strong opposition to school vouchers whereby children could attend private schools with public funds was one of several reasons conservative Southern Baptists opposed him.
(Last month at the Faith & Freedom Coalition meeting I attended in D.C. there were several appeals for legislation that would allow children to go to schools of their family’s choice—presumably using tax money for private schools.)
Last year the paperback edition of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom, Aaron Douglas Weaver’s biography of Dunn, was published. The blurb on Amazon.com calls Dunn “the most aggressive Baptist proponent for religious liberty in the United States.”
It goes on to say, “Soul freedom—voluntary uncoerced faith and an unfettered individual conscience before God—is the basis of his understanding of church-state separation and the historic Baptist basis of religious liberty.”
After leaving the BJC, Dunn became Professor of Christianity and Public Policy at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University. His legacy lives on there partly because of the establishment of the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies at WFU in 2011.
I am most grateful for the life and work of James M. Dunn and his persistent emphasis on soul freedom--and grateful Dunn is not done influencing people about the importance of religious liberty.