August 6, 2015

James M. Dunn, the firebrand Baptist who led the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty for nearly two decades, died on July 4 at the age of 83. Known for his stalwart defense of religious liberty, colorful turns of phrase and ubiquitous bow tie, Dunn will be remembered for his contributions throughout Baptist life, including his leadership of the Baptist Joint Committee through the 1980s and 90s.

“The 20th century had no greater champion of religious freedom – of conscience – than James Dunn,” said Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, who served as BJC general counsel from 1985-1993. “Like Roger Williams, John Leland, George W. Truett and the other great Baptist leaders before him, James understood the dangers of civil religion.”

Some of my favorite Jim Dunn quotes are:

  • When government claims to aid all religions, it never fails to play favorites.
  • The trouble with a theocracy is everyone wants to be Theo.
  • The best thing government can do for religion is leave it alone.
  • You betcha boots. As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in schools.

This is a tribute to Jim I wrote on behalf of the Alliance of Baptists.

James M. Dunn was a true Baptist. Thus, when he wrote and spoke he was always very careful not to claim to represent whole groups, communities or identities. He spoke as James Dunn, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, not as James Dunn representative of all Baptists. He wrote as James Dunn, a wry Baptist from Texas, not as James Dunn exemplar of the one true faith.

Thus, I write this tribute as Jim Hopkins, an Alliance of Baptists pastor honored to serve on the Board of Directors of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Jim Hopkins, an American Baptist pastor who is shaped by the way James spoke truth to power with a fire in his soul and a twinkle in his eye.

I went to seminary in the early 1980s and inched my way toward leadership in our family in the later years of that decade. In many quarters the religious right was rising and I searched for models of Baptist faith and practice who spoke honestly about the Bible, the United States Constitution and our tradition. I had read a bit about James Dunn (he was not a household name on the West Coast) and then in 1989 I met him at a conference in Phoenix. What a breath of fresh air he was.

He brought a feisty faith to bear on a national stage. He said meaningful things in memorable ways. He understood that the Baptist tradition of Soul Liberty needed to be embraced by, rather than expunged from, our congregations. He understood that even though none of us is always correct, we are not well served by silence on matters of religious liberty.

Over the years, James’ faithful witness continued to inform, encourage and inspire me. I am one of a great company of witnesses that is forever in his debt. Warnings like these from James continue to shape my being and my doing – “God is minimized in any marriage of religion and politics…we wind up making God the national mascot.” God was much more than a mascot in the vital faith of James Dunn. For this I am grateful.

James Hopkins