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A Crenelated Wall: The Rise and Fall of Southern Baptist Institutions for the Separation of Church and State, 1936-1979


This dissertation centers on the origins and projects of the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC), founded and funded in 1936 by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and the Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (POAU), founded in 1948 as the brainchild of Southern Baptist elites. I argue these organizations were primarily concerned with opposing American Catholic projects, especially those which sought public monies for parochial schools. Ironically, the structures and organizations which greatly aided this effort to expand religious tolerance and liberty in this period had their origins in concerns about the Catholic Church and American Catholicism held by many Baptists.

A crisis point for the BJC and the POAU occurred when, in 1963, in the Schempp case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the devotional use of the Bible and prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. This decision was deeply unpopular with most evangelical politicians and lay people. Working against pressures and measures to amend the First Amendment “to put God back in the schools” in the post-Schempp U.S., evangelical elites of the BJC and POAU helped save it from emendation by vigorously, systematically, and publicly opposing the Becker Amendment and similar legislation. However, BJC and POAU support for Schempp and its de-Christianization of the public schools greatly alienated the broad evangelical support for these organizations. By the 1980s, after the SBC was captured by its right wing, Southern Baptist support was effectively withdrawn from the BJC and the POAU, and these organizations lost their evangelical underpinnings. The BJC and the POAU reinvented themselves and subsequently worked to oppose those projects of the Religious Right they deemed contrary to the separation of church and state—a Religious Right where, ironically, the SBC now played a large role.

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