New Book on James Dunn and Soul Freedom

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“Everybody wants a theocracy,” James Dunn famously said. “And everybody wants to be ‘Theo.'”

I probably quote that at least once a semester in Christian ethics class here at Southern Seminary, not only because it’s pithy but because it is so true. Dunn, longtime head of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, was nothing if not quotable. The other famous (or infamous) quote from him that comes to mind is his one sentence defense of “soul freedom”: “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe.”

Love him or hate him, Dunn was a powerful force in Baptist life in the twentieth-century, and a new book seeks to set him in historical and theological context. Aaron Douglas Weaver’s James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom, just published by Smyth and Helwys, is that book, and it’s well worth reading.

Weaver, easily the most gifted young historian of the moderate Baptist movement, crafts a winsome and engaging narrative and, unlike many historians, refuses to ignore theological analysis of his subject. I think Weaver will be a major force in Baptist historical scholarship in the next generation, precisely because of his analytical ability and his gift for prose.

Weaver is, of course, sympathetic; at times, I think, overly so. He, for example, treats Dunn’s anti-Catholicism quite gently, and argues unconvincingly that Dunn’s argument that abortion should be between a woman and her doctor is remaining neutral on the pro-life/pro-choice debate. That aside, the book should be read not only by Dunn’s sympathizers but by those of us who are theologically conservative as well. Here there are a number of lessons to be learned.

First of all, enough time has passed for conservatives to appreciate some genuinely commendable facets of Dunn’s work. He was right to argue that separation of church and state is a Baptist distinctive worth preserving, even when he stretched the definition beyond what most of us would agree with. He was right to assert that the Supreme Court decision (Smith v. Oregon) that removed the “compelling interest” test with regard to religious liberty is dangerous.

He was right to oppose the government underwriting religion in such ways as state-written “non-denominational” prayers and funding for religious initiatives (which, as we’ve seen, ultimately cut the evangelistic and Christocentric heart out of those initiatives). And, perhaps above all, Dunn was right to warn of what a Christless civil religion does to the witness of the church, which is to freeze it into something useless if not satanic.

Here, though, is where the warning for us all comes in. Dunn was not exempt from the pull toward a civil religion and a politicized faith. It is fair enough to say that some of Dunn’s critics opposed him with an uncritical Reaganism rather than with a gospel-centered theology. But Dunn consistently showed an unwillingness to break from his own partisan commitments too.

On the issue of abortion, for instance, Dunn refused to call for the protection of unborn human life. Why not? 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. Can a magistrate claim the “soul freedom” to whip a dissenter for refusing to baptize his baby or to preach without a license? Leland and Backus would say, “no.” So would, come to think of it, Smyth and Helwys.

If there is only one person involved, soul freedom is an easy rallying cry (as was, and is, “states’ rights”). If there are two (which even most abortion-rights advocates would admit now, while still defending the priority of the woman’s choice), then soul freedom doesn’t answer the question. 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.

This book demonstrates why Dunn succeeded where he did, with some genuine pluck and courage. It also shows why he failed to lead Southern Baptists where he wanted to go. Some of that is due to the cultural and social and theological factors in the Convention at the time. Some of that is because of Dunn’s acerbic disposition and his all-too-often refusal to transcend partisanship. Matching reflexive Reaganism with reflexive anti-Reaganism tends to dilute a prophetic witness.

Resurgent conservatives should see in this book where both Dunn, and we, have succeeded and failed. Our witness is often compromised by politicians who seek to use us (just as, arguably, Bill Clinton used Dunn and his allies). Our leaders want to adopt whole-cloth the agendas of those with whom we might agree on some transcendent issues. Politicians seek to co-opt our religious figures for “prayer rallies.” Our religious figures prognosticate on partisan elections, with thinly-veiled endorsements of candidates, often in shockingly carnal terms. And we don’t even notice that our neighbors see what we’re really after: power. We also don’t notice that our neighbors are wondering: if we’re this easily duped by political maneuvering, how can we be trusted to talk about the question of the resurrection from the dead?

I don’t agree with James Dunn’s anti-creedalism. Neither does he. “Ain’t nobody but Jesus” is a creed. Jesus, after all, refers to someone, and there’s some theological content there. I don’t agree with Dunn’s theological liberalism, and I think he was all too willing to mute his “prophetic” witness when it came to his political allies.

But I agree with him on the big picture, if not always in the details, that the church is too important to be tied up with the state. The temptation for all of us is to want to be “Theo.” There’s no arguing with that.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.