Can a Baptist be president? Jimmy Carter and the possibility that John Smyth may have been right after all.

Author:Canipe, Lee

The obvious answer, of course, is "Yes, a Baptist can be president." It happened four times during the 20th century. Warren Harding, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, gill Clinton: they all served as President of the United States and they all were Baptists. Clearly, a Baptist can be president. As the apostle Paul once observed, however, the fact that something can happen does not necessarily mean that it should happen. "'All things are lawful,'", he writes in/Corinthians, 10.23,. "but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up." in other words, when considering the presence of Baptists in the White House, the better question to ask may not be Can a Baptist be president?" but, rather, Should a Baptist be president?"

The origins of this latter question--in principle, at least--date back to the earliest days of Baptist faith and practice. In 1610, John Smyth and his congregation of baptized believers in Holland affirmed their conviction that, in order to follow Jesus' example of an "unarmed and unweaponed life," Christians should not hold any position of civil authority that might require them to use the coercive power of the sword. (1) By this time, though, the mainstream of Baptist tradition--or, rather, the mainstream of what eventually became Baptist tradition--had begun to flow in a different direction. (2) Opposed to Smyth's positions on civil authority and a number of other key issues, a group of dissenters led by Thomas Helwys--and comfortable with the idea of Christians wielding the sword on behalf of the government--returned to England and established a Baptist church on the outskirts of London. (3) Smyth and his followers, meanwhile, remained in Holland, where they gradually assimilated into various Dutch Anabaptist congregations. (4)

When the Smyth group disappeared into historical oblivion, they took their moral reservations about civil authority and the sword with them. Indeed, Smyth's spiritual descendants today remember him almost exclusively as a religious pioneer and an early Baptist advocate for individual freedom, while his Christian convictions regarding the use of the sword lie buried beneath more than three centuries of Baptist practice to the contrary. (5) Contemporary Baptists may distinguish Smyth's convictions about freedom-from his reservations about civil authority--celebrating one, ignoring the other--but Smyth himself believed that the two were intertwined insofar as the responsibilities incumbent upon a civil magistrate compromised a Christian's freedom to follow Jesus. The demands of discipleship and the demands of civil authority, in other words, necessarily placed the conscientious Christian magistrate in a moral dilemma over which master to serve. True religious freedom--the sine qua non of the historic Baptist identity--came with avoiding that dilemma in the first place.

Consider the experience of Jimmy Carter. Perhaps no president ever came to Washington with a greater commitment to pursuing a peaceful foreign policy self-consciously shaped by Christian ideas, particularly regarding human rights. Nevertheless, as president, Carter could not let his decisions be guided exclusively by Christian principle and the nonviolent example of Jesus. He was, by definition, commander in chief of the nation's armed forces and sworn to preserve, protect, and defend American interests both at home and abroad. Like most presidents, especially in the nuclear age, Carter wrestled with the moral implications of this responsibility. The fact that he did so as a devout Christian and a committed Baptist makes his example particularly relevant for the spiritual heirs of John Smyth, for it was only after giving up his civil obligations as commander in chief that Jimmy Carter discovered the freedom to become, as one of his biographers has written, a peace outlaw [with a] Christian message. (6)

So, can a Baptist who consistently seeks to follow the "unarmed and unweaponed example of Jesus be president. Certainly. The question, Should such a Baptist be president? remains more difficult to answer. The experience of Jimmy Carter, though, raises the possibility that, when it comes to the presidency, John Smyth might have been right.


As Baptist historian Timothy_ George has written, John Smyth was "a man of exceedingly malleable conviction, who within less than a decade had moved from moderate Anglican to advanced Puritan to Separatist to Baptist to Anabatist" (7) While critics considered him capricious, Smyth simply explained that his willingness to change opinions reflected a deep commitment to truth. Latter though[t]s oft tymes are better than the former," he wrote in 1608, adding that "I will every day as my erroers shalbe discovered confesse them and renounce them." (8) When new insights required him to abandon one position and take up another, Smyth did-not hesitate to make the necessary adjustments. Even after becoming a Separatist, Smyth's views on church and state remained fairly conventional for his time and place. Civil authorities, he wrote in 1605, were ordained by God for their task and were completely justified in using the full power of the law--up to and including capi-tal punishment--to enforce religious orthodoxy. (9) As Smyth became more involved with the radical Anabaptists in Holland, however, his opinions began to shift rather quickly.

By 1610, he and forty-two members of his congregation in Amsterdam had reached the point where they could comfortably endorse an Anabaptist confession of faith that flatly rejected the notion that Christian discipleship was compatible with civil powers of coercion. According to article thirty-six of the confession, Jesus did not call his followers to be kings, princes, or magistrates, nor had "he burdened or charged them to assume such offices, or to govern the world in such a worldly manner." (10) Since the activities commonly associated with worldly authority--in particular using the sword either to enforce the law or engage in war--did not reflect the unarmed and unweaponed life" of Jesus, the confession concluded "that it beseemeth not Christians to administer these offices; therefore we avoid [them]." (11)

Should Christians choose to do otherwise, Smyth warned, they could find their freedom to follow Jesus severely limited by the requirements of their civil office. "Propositions and Conclusions concerning True Christian Religion," a treatise commonly attributed to Smyth but published after his death in 1612, described in detail the ethical dilemma that a Christian magistrate would inevitably face:

If the magistrate will follow Christ, and be His disciple, he must deny himself, take vp his crosse, and follow Christ: he must loue his enemies and not kill them, he must pray for them, and not punish them, he must feed them and glue them drinke, not imprison them: banish them: dismember them: and spoyle their Goods: he must suffer persecution and affliction with Christ, and be slaundered, reviled, blasphemed, scourged, buffeted, spit vpon, imprisoned and killed with Christ. (12)

These acts of discipleship, Smyth argued, "he cannot possiblie doe, and reteyne the reuendge of the sword." (13) In other word;, responsible magistrates had to engage in activities that Christians in good conscience simply could not do, for the office of magistrate, writes George, with its penchant for violence, war, and capital punishment, was fundamentally at odds with the Christian-commitment to noneoercion." (14) One could either wield the sword or bear the cross, but Smyth considered it morally impossible to carry both at the same time. Avoiding the former, then, represented one way Christians could preserve their-freedom to do the latter.

When Thomas Helwys returned to England, Baptist history quickly and emphatically left John Smyth and his apolitical, pacifist understanding of Christian discipleship behind in Holland. Accommodating themselves to the realities of a fallen world, Helwys and his group of Baptists adopted the position that war and the exercise of coercive force, while always regrettable, were sometimes necessary in order to maintain a just, peaceful society. (15) Far from being a point of moral conflict, the coercive activity of the state--even at the sharp edge of a sword--came to be understood as a qualified good by the early Baptists in Britain. Whereas Smyth believed that each person, as a whole, belonged either to the Kingdom of God or to the world, Helwys justified his departure from Jesus' life and teaching,s by assuming a different,, sort of dichotomy. For Helwys, writes historian James Coggins, "the body was part of the world, subject to earthly kings and able to use the physical sword The spirit was subject only to spiritual authorities and spiritual penalties." (16) This essential moral distinction between body and spirit--or, more to the point, between action and belief--decisively shaped the Baptist tradition that followed.

Nevertheless, in Britain and, later, in the United States, Baptists through they,ears continued to acknowledge the ethical imperative of Jesus peaceful example, albeit more as an abstract ideal than an actual model for daily living. In its Faith and Message Statements of 1925 and 1963, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention declared it the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war." (17) Moreover, the 1925 statement continued, Southern Baptists urged Christian people throughout the world to pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace, and to oppose everything likely to provoke war." (18)

While fidelity to the spirit and teachings of Jesus obligated Southern Baptists in principle, at least, to oppose war and promote peace, their deeply-ingrained habits of separating spirit from body and church from state ensured that these lofty...

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