Introducing My Baptist Hero: Dr. James Dunn
Sporting my Baylor tie, I had the great privilege of introducing Dr. James M. Dunn at the annual Religious Liberty Council luncheon of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Dunn was there to celebrate the BJC’s 75th anniversary and receive this year’s J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award.
Below is my introduction:
I know that for most here in this room, James Dunn certainly needs no introduction.
But allow me, for a moment, to offer a quick primer, a James Dunn highlight reel:
Prior to becoming the witty and wise Baptist freedom fighter than we all know and love, James Dunn served Baptist churches in Texas in the 1950s and as director of the Baptist Student Union at West Texas State University from 1961 to 1966.
From 1968 thru 1980 as director of the Texas Christian Life Commission, Dunn urged Texas Baptists to accept their responsibility to participate in the political process as Christian citizens.
Under Dunn’s watch, the Texas CLC tackled pressing issues from juvenile justice reform to pollution control to equal rights for women and minorities.
Throughout his nearly twenty-year tenure as Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, Dunn aggressively took on the Religious Right with an often confrontational style and with much, much colorful rhetoric.
He loudly opposed the Religious Right’s attempt to sponsor and supervise prayer in public schools. He called out President Reagan for his demagoguery and for playing petty politics with prayer.
Southern Baptist fundamentalists attempted to smear Dunn’s name and that of the BJC. Yet, the fundamentalists could not silence Dunn, who, in the face of much adversity, continued to relentlessly pursue a pro-religious freedom agenda. Consequently, the BJC played a critical role in securing the passage of the Equal Access Act in 1984 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.
Year after year, Dunn and the BJC fought off a barrage of school prayer proposals and countless voucher schemes. When Vice-President Al Gore backed federal funding for faith-based groups during his presidential campaign, Dunn penned an open letter to his long-time friend:
“Dear Mr. Vice President, I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, you’ve ripped your britches.”
Throughout his entire ministry, Dunn’s advocacy has been grounded in a commitment to soul freedom. He has taught many generations of Baptists that separation of church and state is the logical, theological and political consequence of a genuine, uncoerced faith that springs from soul freedom and extends religious liberty to all.
Over the past six decades, James Dunn has offered Baptists a way to apply their faith in the public square on social and church-state issues in a manner consistent with the historic Baptist emphasis on soul freedom. This Christ-centered, biblically based and deeply Baptist approach promoted by Dunn is motivated by a loving concern for others and a commitment to the common good.
Dunn recognized that soul freedom has historically served as the basis of an authentic Baptist identity. And so Dunn stressed that the Baptist tradition was true to itself when it promoted and supported public policies that safeguarded the individual conscience, maximized religious freedom and required church and state to remain separate.
Dunn’s linking of soul freedom to social Christianity is an example worthy of emulation by future generations of Baptists. It is also an example that puts a significant dent in the false claim that a commitment to soul freedom ultimately cripples the ability of Christians to collectively confront the social ills which ail society. The soul freedom which Dunn promotes requires social action and shuns inaction.
In a day when creedal conformity tends to define Baptists more than ever and when the focus on community tends to neglect the biblical and historic focus on the individual, Dunn’s message of soul freedom needs to be heard. In an era when many Americans, prominent elected officials, and Christian leaders seem afraid of extending religious freedom to minority faith groups, especially Muslims, Dunn’s message of real religious liberty and church-state separation should certainly not be forgotten.
So, without further ado, I’m pleased to introduce to you my friend and personal Baptist hero, Dr. James M. Dunn.
Dunn uplifts ‘soul freedom’ at BJC luncheon (Associated Baptist Press)
A Dunn Deal (Baptists Today)
My book: James M. Dunn & Soul Freedom by Aaron Douglas Weaver