The Baptist-on-Baptist fight within Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ debate

Very seldom do you hear governors wax theological. Even then, they usually stick to the noncontroversial basics: Thou shalt not steal, honor thy father and mother, and beware of demagogues with comb-overs.

But if you were among those packed into Nathan Deal’s office last Monday, you saw something different. Tucked within the governor’s veto message on “religious liberty” legislation was a solid blow struck in the 35-year-old fight over what it means to be a Baptist in the South.

House Bill 757 was intended to offer legal protection to opponents of same-sex marriage. In his rejection of the measure, the governor went old-school Baptist. Danbury Baptist. Jefferson-and-the-wall-of-separation Baptist.

“I find it somewhat ironic that today some in the religious community feel it necessary to ask government to confer upon them certain rights and protections,” Deal said. “If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the ‘hands off’ admonition of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

When it comes to religion, even when legislatures try to do good, Deal said, “the inclusions and omissions” in the laws they draft can lead to trouble. “That is too great a risk to take,” he said.

If you were raised anything other than Southern Baptist, there’s a good chance you didn’t hear that dog whistle. Others did.

In the immediate aftermath of the veto, the governor was called a minion of the Antichrist and worse. But perhaps the sharpest criticism came from Albert Mohler, the president of the Louisville, Ky., seminary that serves as the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In one of his daily podcasts, the seminary president declared Deal’s veto to be “fueled by a theological agenda,” as well as an economic one.

Mohler pointed out that the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, where Deal and his family are members, was among those that split from the denomination during the great Southern Baptist schism, a series of battles for the institutions of the denomination that rocked Georgia congregations from the 1980s through the turn of the century.

The seminary president also noted that when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state bans on gay marriage, Deal’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Coates, opined that whether Baptist clergy conducted same-sex ceremonies was a matter that should be left to individual congregations.

“It is all of a piece,” Mohler concluded. Never mind that the deacons of the governor’s church voted not to allow them.

The Southern Baptist schism erupted in clashes over inerrancy — is the Bible the literal word of God or open to interpretation? — and the role of women in church leadership.

“Fundamentalists” rejected the ordination of women. “Moderates” embraced it. In each case, the key point was whether these positions should be decided congregation by congregation or were an inviolable part of being a Southern Baptist.

Fundamentalists won: Literalism and a ban on female clergy became part of Southern Baptist orthodoxy. Moderate churches, whose members included President Jimmy Carter and Governor Deal, departed and formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

One byproduct of the fundamentalist victory — the winners now prefer the term “conservative resurgence” — was a shift in the denomination’s detached attitude toward government and political activity, which had its roots in that letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association endorsing “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

The Southern Baptist Convention quickly became a major force for social conservatism within the national Republican Party — and remains so today.

In that sense, the Georgia fight over same-sex marriage and religious liberty has become another chapter in Baptist vs. Baptist argument.

In the state Capitol, lobbyists for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board have served as the primary force driving the issue. Other major denominations have declined to be involved. The state’s Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, this week reiterated their opposition to any legislation that discriminated.

Backers of HB 757 now realize that their main opponent, Nathan Deal, is a member of a Baptist denomination that still prefers a wall of separation between church and state.

The Rev. Bill Coates, the governor’s pastor, took a few days off last week. The Easter holiday can be hectic. But we reached him by email and asked him whether the governor’s veto reflected the values of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville.

“My perception is that the great majority of our congregants are very supportive of Governor Deal’s veto of this bill — primarily for two reasons,” Coates replied. “First, we hold to the strong historical Baptist principle of separation of church and state.

“The second is personal: We know Nathan Deal the man, the strong Christian who has held numerous positions of leadership and influence in this church and who worships faithfully.”

Coates characterized his most prominent congregant as a conservative Christian who knows he can’t always govern the state through his own personal beliefs.

“For example, some years ago he supported a measure which expanded the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays even though he personally does not drink at all,” Coates wrote.

On Thursday, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston said they wouldn’t back a legislative override of the governor’s veto. But they intend to bring the issue back next year.

It will be a somewhat refined debate in 2017: Legislators will be asked to decide which Baptist brand of religious liberty they prefer.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.