Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dunn is not Done

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.


  1. Dr. Brent Walker, one of my esteemed Thinking Friends, was Dr. Dunn's associate and then his able successor at the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs.

  2. Local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet shares this comment:

    "Maybe a quarter century ago Bill Moyers did an hour PBS program which I showed to my classes about the right-wing take over of the So Bapt Convention and Dunn was forceful in defending religious liberty. Thanks for your tribute."

  3. Thinking Friend David A. Johnson in Alabama posted this article on Facebook with these comments:

    "I was in a discussion with colleagues about the notion that Southern Baptists should drop the word "Southern" from the name when one person suggested that the word they should drop is 'Baptist.' One reason I wholeheartedly agreed is that the SBC has pretty much abandoned one of the tenants of what it means to be Baptist: the Separation of Church and State."

  4. Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted, a retired Baptist pastor in Springfield, Mo., shares the following comments:

    "I met James Dunn when I was a college student in Texas in the 1960s. We became friends and he was an encourager through all these years. I know of no one who has ever understood so clearly our nation's founders intent on religious liberty for all people.

    "Dunn crusaded for the rights of all people to believe and worship without fear of persecution or interference by the state.

    "Sadly, many Baptists have not read our own history or choose to ignore it, loudly declaring that the United States is some kind of 'new Israel' or warrior nation called to bend the world to our faith.

    "A return to the gospel accounts of Jesus, his example and teachings, and the powerful religious machine that played the key role in his crucifixion could enlighten us all.

    "May God raise up more men and women like James Dunn. In a time when political candidates posture as 'defenders of the faith' and tie their extreme positions to Christianity may God help us all to live as followers of Christ."

  5. I met Dunn a number of years ago when he came to Second Baptist, Liberty, Missouri during the SBC turmoil. After a Wednesday night dinner of appropriate Firecracker Casserole, I happened to be the person to walk him out to his car, and point him on his way to the pastor's house. I remember him saying, "It's amazing what you can do if you don't mind who gets the credit."

  6. Thinking Friend Jo Beth Fielder has lived in Texas for many years now, but she and her late husband were our good friends and colleagues in Fukuoka, Japan, for a number of years. I am pleased she gave me permission to post her comments here:

    "He was truly a giant in Baptist life who would not, could not be dislodged from his firmly held beliefs about religious liberty. We followed his work closely, one reason being that his wife Marilyn was in a young people's group we sponsored at the church we served in when Gerald was in the seminary in Ft. Worth, TX, 1951-54 just before going to Japan. I still receive the magazine of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, 'Report from the Capital.' I'm glad you have remembered him in this way on the anniversary of his death."

  7. Regarding your first sentence, it is sad to see the holy catholic Church spinning apart. But as my spiritual mentor, Fr. Doug has noted, few within the Church, of any denomination, actually follow Christ, though many claim to (that included the Roman Catholic branch). And the First Amendment to the US Constitution appears to be out the window as well. Elimination of Church from State may be upon us. Thankfully, there still seems to be a remnant. We need a massive move of the Holy
    Spirit, and much repentance by all. Marana Tha.