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James Dunn, soul freedom ‘firebrand,’ dies at 83

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (BP) — James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs from 1981-99, died Saturday, July 4, in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 83.

Dunn led the church-state organization, now called Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, during turbulent years in its relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. Disagreements between SBC leaders and the BJC over public policy and other issues led to the convention’s defunding of the organization over a two-year span at the 1990 and ’91 SBC annual meetings. Until its actions, the SBC was the largest financial contributor among the BJC’s then nine member denominations.

The SBC cut all ties with the BJC in 1992.

Prior to leading the BJC, Dunn had served 12 years as director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He was a trustee of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., at the time of his move to Washington and was a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s advisory council.

After retirement, Dunn taught Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

The BJC, in its obituary of Dunn, described him as “a firebrand Baptist” known for “his stalwart defense of religious liberty.”

He is survived by his wife Marilyn. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, July 18, at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Dunn held a doctor of theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, studying under longtime ethics professor T.B. Maston. Dunn earlier received a bachelor of divinity degree from Southwestern and an undergraduate degree from Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.

In a folksy yet bombastic style, Dunn opposed conservatives on such matters as prayer in public schools and federal vouchers for private schools. But on occasion he found common ground with conservatives, most notably in the passage of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which in recent months has emerged as a battleground between conservatives and gay rights activists.

Dunn was the author of several books and the subject of a 2011 book titled “James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom” by Aaron Douglas Weaver.

Russell Moore, then-dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology, reviewed Weaver’s book after its publication by Smyth and Helwys.

“Love him or hate him, Dunn was a powerful force in Baptist life in the twentieth century,” Moore wrote, crediting Dunn with quips he (Moore) had used in his classroom such as “Everybody wants a theocracy. And everybody wants to be ‘Theo'” and “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe.” Moore currently is president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Moore wrote that he agreed with Dunn on various issues, “perhaps above all … of what a Christless civil religion does to the witness of the church, which is to freeze it into something useless if not satanic.”

Yet Dunn “was not exempt from the pull toward a civil religion and a politicized faith,” Moore wrote. “On the issue of abortion, for instance, Dunn refused to call for the protection of unborn human life. … His principle of ‘soul freedom’ gave a theological basis for the right of a woman to choose to abort her child. But what about the question of the personhood of the fetus, what of his or her ‘soul freedom’? After all, ‘soul freedom’ wouldn’t mean the freedom of a white supremacist to lynch, would it? Of course not. Can a corporate executive claim the ‘soul freedom’ to pollute a water stream? No. … Dunn saw the limits of ‘soul freedom,’ and courageously so, when it came to issues of segregation, economic predation (including the state lottery system), and so on. It’s a tragedy he couldn’t see it here” on abortion.

Yet Dunn’s death sparked an outpouring of affirmation on Facebook and in other media.

Brent Walker, quoted in an obituary at Baptist News Global, said, “How fitting that he died — like fellow freedom advocates Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — on the Fourth of July.”