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Baptist moderates declare solidarity with secular humanists in new book

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Several leading Baptist moderates affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have joined with secular humanists in a newly released book to call for a common view of religious liberty that includes abortion rights and opposition to the growing public influence of conservative evangelicals.

The volume, “Freedom of Conscience: A Baptist/Humanist Dialogue”, is edited by Baptist Paul D. Simmons and published by Prometheus Press, one of the nation’s largest publishers of secularist books.

Simmons, a former ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a leader in the effort by Kentucky Baptist moderates to form a Baptist Seminary of Kentucky as an alternative to Southern Seminary’s conservative direction since the election of a conservative president in 1993.

The book also includes chapters by prominent Baptist moderates such as E. Glenn Hinson, Molly T. Marshall and Robert S. Alley and secular humanists such as Paul Kurtz, founder of Free Inquiry, a national magazine for atheists, agnostics and humanists. Both Hinson and Marshall also are former faculty members at Southern Seminary.

The book project flows from a “Cooperative Baptist/Secular Humanist Dialogue” Oct. 6-7, 1995, on the campus of the University of Richmond.

“I have not come to bury humanism but to praise it,” Simmons remarks in the opening chapter, titled, “Thank God for Humanism!” Simmons reassures those who “feel some objection to my invocation of deity” that he means no offense. Instead, Simmons asserts that he and his fellow Baptist moderates found the meeting with the humanists to be “a welcome retreat from the angry invectives and false accusations” of the SBC conservatives now represented on the trustee boards of the convention’s seminaries.

A key component of Baptist/humanist consensus on religious liberty, Simmons writes, in the right to legal abortion. The Supreme Court should safeguard legal abortion out of a commitment to religious liberty, he maintains, since those who seek to outlaw or restrict abortion are attempting to impose a dogmatic religious view on the consciences of pregnant women.

“The abortion clinic becomes a battleground over religious liberties; but only one party is attempting to coerce the other,” Simmons writes. “At what point is religious intolerance to be restrained?”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, described the book as representing “the logical conclusion to the liberal Baptist trajectory, common ground with humanists and their secular agenda.”

“The most tragic aspect of this book is the fact that it is so difficult to distinguish the Baptists and the humanists from each other — they sound so much alike,” Mohler lamented. “Southern Baptists wondering what the past 20 years of controversy were all about will find all they need to know in this book.”

Simmons, countering “right-wing evangelical Christians” who “are devoted to doctrinal orthodoxy as a test of both good morals and true faith,” writes that the Baptists and humanists represented in the book agree that neither personal salvation nor belief in God is “a prerequisite to being moral.” Simmons argues that humanists are not opponents of Jesus since they “frequently follow what Jesus had to say while rejecting the Resurrection and Ascension as mythological fantasy.”

Pointing to Thomas Jefferson as an example of modern secular humanism, Simmons writes that Jefferson, who edited a version of the New Testament that removed the miracles and the resurrection of Christ, “was no enemy of Jesus but was an opponent of bad morals and irrational beliefs.”

Similarly, Simmons criticizes conservatives who would deem liberal Baptist Carlyle Marney to be “outside the faith when he confessed he found the very idea of resurrection difficult to believe” except for twice a year, at Easter and at the death of a friend.

Baptist moderates and secular humanists can find common ground, Simmons concludes, in articulating a common morality and in opposing the “theocrats and church-over-staters” in evangelical Christianity. Simmons condemns, for instance, the “ideological rigidity in the form of theological dogmatism and narrow moralism” of the six SBC seminaries that has marked “the end of what many regard as a glorious era in progressive theological education” in SBC seminaries.

Molly T. Marshall’s chapter focused on a Christian view of humanity and spiritual formation. Marshall, professor of spirituality and worship at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Kan., criticized the evangelical doctrine of salvation by faith alone as having “unfortunately, fostered a deep suspicion about the efficacy of any human effort in matters of salvation.”

E. Glenn Hinson, professor emeritus of church history and spirituality at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, asserts that humanism need not be secular, but is a part of the Christian tradition as well.

The volume concludes with a joint statement, “In Defense of Freedom of Conscience: A Cooperative Baptist/Secular Humanist Declaration,” which was adopted at the October 1995 meeting at the University of Richmond.

The statement calls for SBC seminaries to relax their confessional standards for faculty hiring. It also affirms critical biblical scholarship, church/state separation and pluralistic democracy. The joint statement was signed by Baptists such as Simmons, Hinson, University of Richmond professor emeritus Robert Alley and Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, as well as by humanist atheists and agnostics such as Harvard University’s Edward O. Wilson and three editors of Free Inquiry.

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  • Russell D. Moore