The Separation of Church and State: Criswell’s Use of Religious Liberty to Justify Segregation

Baptists are committed to local church autonomy, which flourishes in contexts free of governmental oversight or state-church structures. America was founded on such religious liberty, and Baptists in America have historically fought to preserve it. Yet, what happens when one person’s religious liberty infringes on another’s civil liberties? George W. Truett specifically warned against the abuse of liberty in his 1920 speech entitled Baptists and Religious Liberty. Ultimately, Truett’s successor, W.A. Criswell, found himself on the wrong side of liberty in the years following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (1954). In his 1956 speech to the joint assembly of the South Carolina legislature, Criswell presented an argument for segregation based on religious liberty. This paper will engage with the thoughts of W.A. Criswell through sermons, convention addresses, and his 1956 speech in South Carolina and advance the thesis that Criswell’s use of religious liberty justified his thoughts on racial segregation. This thesis will develop from an understanding of Criswell’s ministry context at First Baptist Church Dallas, following the distinguished pastorate of Dr. George W. Truett. The paper will conclude with a synthesis of religious liberty and racial segregation based on a literal interpretation hermeneutical approach, which was convictional for Criswell.