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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Damage done by groups like the Moral Majority

Finlator expresses his frustration with religious-political groups like the Moral Majority, which in his opinion selectively read the Bible to seize power. In doing so they erode the church-state divide, forsake their Baptist faith, and damage their own religion, Finlator believes. He worries about the effects of this new influence on government and seeks to remind Baptists of their history as dissenters.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But what's happened with the fundamentalists and the Moral Majority people is that you have a very vigorous, aggressive, competitive, combative successful group of Christian leaders who have decided what constitutes Christian faith with their selective use of the Bible and that's it. And among other matters they say, "Unless you are against gay rights, unless you are against abortion, unless you are against obscenity, unless you are for prayer in the public schools, unless you are against the teaching of evolution in the public schools—unless you are right on these things, you're not a Christian. Because this is Christianity." Then, you see, you have the Christian faith divided between those who are in it and those who are excluded. Now the people who have the truth, Jay, are organizing politically. They are targeting people in Congress who do not share their beliefs in these matters. They are targeting people on school boards who do not share their beliefs. And they're saying everybody on the school board, everybody in Congress has got to be one of us. Now this, of course, is the ultimate violation of church-state separation. This is a religious spectacle that the Constitution rejects. These people are becoming more and more powerful and their thinking—zealous as they are—is in some ways an ideology with fascist overtones. And these people are in power today and are grabbing more power. And anyone who believes in civil liberties knows these people have little patience with the First Amendment; they'd like to have it out of their way. And the fight for civil liberties is a beleaguered fight today. And the sad thing about it, for me, Jay, is that so many of these people are Baptists and they don't realize that they've forsaken their Baptist faith.
What part does your Baptist faith play in your stance on civil rights?
Well, the Baptists of course, are supposed to be great advocates of church-state separation through their history. That's one of the tragedies we see taking place today as I just said. The people like Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson who are tremendously successful televangelists are saying this is the definition of the Christian faith. And we have a country now, a President, an administration, who sides with these people, who identifies with them. Which is to say we have now an administration taking sides with a divided Christian community. You can see how ominous that is. It is the ominous fact that the administration is not only identifying with the Christian faith, while so many of our people in America are not Christians at all, but it is taking sides with a particular expression of the Christian faith: Pandora's Box is about to be opened. But now, back to the Baptists. Anyone who understands, or who bothers to take the trouble to understand, what Baptists are supposed to believe (and most Baptists today simply won't take the trouble: they don't want to know anymore than in the days of the civil rights movement when most southerners wanted to know what was in the Bill of Rights) will find that Baptists—traditionally—were forced to be civil libertarians. And by that I mean, Jay, that the way that Baptists began along with other dissenting groups, they found themselves in the old countries with the great religious wars, as neither Catholic nor Protestant. That meant that they were in areas where a nation was either an official Catholic nation or a Protestant nation. And by that I mean that nation had an established church and the church was supported—whether it was Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Anglican—by the state and there was no church-state separation. And if you belonged to that state, you belonged to that church; if you belonged to that church, you belonged to that state. Patriotism and faith were merged into one thing, and if you were subversive religiously, you were subversive politically. Now, in that situation, the Baptists and the other dissenting groups found themselves as neither fish nor foul; neither Protestant nor Catholic. So both Catholic and Protestants lined up against these dissenting groups, among which were the Baptists. In order to survive, these persecuted groups had to fight for freedom of speech, they had to fight for freedom of the press, they had to fight for freedom of assembly, they had to fight for freedom of conscience, they had to fight for freedom of privacy. All of these basic freedoms that we see in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were fought for by Baptists centuries before [the Constitution] was established. O.K. Now, that means a Baptists fights for his own freedoms, protection of his own conscience, the local autonomy (the rule of his own church), separation of church and state. That means also that he found out that his freedoms were not secure unless he held those freedoms secure for everybody else. Now when we talk about church-state separation—the reading of prayers in public schools—and you find Baptists in support of this sort of thing, you know that they've departed from the faith of their fathers. All of these civil liberties that I'm talking about—so many of them—are right there in Baptist history. And this Baptist history had a great deal to do with the adoption of the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution. So finally, what we're dealing with today is a large number of electronic, fundamentalist, successoriented Baptists who don't want to know anything about their history or what Baptists are supposed to believe. And therefore, these are the people who are betraying civil rights and freedom. For instance, if you take the matter of conscientious objection, you would think that the very first person to defend a conscientious objector would be a southern Baptist because they have always said we must have the protection of private conscience, the right to read the Bible, to interpret the Bible, to let God speak to us from the Bible to our own conscience—person to person, and what God says to us we must honor. But when a Baptist says, "I cannot support military conscription," how many Baptists will today come to his support? We see an unfolding drama in the so-called "split" in the Southern Baptist Convention today, and there is a very serious split. It's between the people who are known as fundamentalists and the people who are known as moderates. The word conservative perhaps ought not to be used because all Southern Baptists, with rare exceptions, are conservatives. Liberalism, as we know it, is almost nonexistent in the Southern Baptist Convention, although the fundamentalists are today accusing the moderates of being liberals. The difference between the fundamentalists and the moderates is that a number of Baptists (I don't know how many) who are fundamentalists, of the Jerry Falwell type, who are sure that Christianity means certain things, that you have to believe in the inerrancy of the scriptures, you have to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, you have to believe in the virgin birth, in the blood atonement: "Unless you believe exactly like we believe, you're not Baptist." And this, of course, is in violation of the Baptist persuasion of openness, and plurality, and dissent and freedom. The people who believe this way, Jay, seem in ascendance. Thus the Southern Baptist Convention is at a great crisis in that so many of us really have never understood the faith of the fathers. It is not with us still.
Are these Baptists from the Southwest primarily, are they in effect trying to set up some sort of doctrinal test for Baptists who traditionally have had autonomy in the local churches?
That's exactly what they're doing and it's very damaging.