Abandoned yet restructured: J.M Dawson Institute commits to church-state studies

Tidwell BIble Building. Assoah Ndomo | Photographer

By Sarah Wang | Staff Writer

Inside the office of Dr. Elizabeth Flowers in Tidwell Bible Building is the J.M Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies — an institute that no longer takes the form of a physical building. Flowers, associate professor of religion, currently serves as its director.

Established by Baylor in 1957, the Dawson Institute was named after a prominent Texas pastor of First Baptist Church Waco.

The Dawson Institute is dedicated to the study of church-state relations and the promotion of religious freedom. It hosts lectures and cooperates with entities such as the Baylor Department of Religion, “The Journal of Church & State,” the Keston Center for Religion, Politics and Society and the Baptist Studies Center for Research.

Dr. Doug Weaver, professor and chair of religion, was the former director of the Dawson Institute. He said there was an academic component to the institute, with students studying for a master’s degree in church-state studies. He said there were also undergraduate and Ph.D. classes in the institute, and students could get an interdisciplinary degree, which allowed them to pursue a Ph.D. in religion, politics and society.

“There are some things that I don’t really know,” Weaver said. “Its [academic program] was around a while, but the decision was made to no longer have the academic component to the Dawson Center.”

In 2021, the department of church-state studies was restructured to have its own faculty, journal, classes and graduate program closed. The entities that used to make up the Dawson Institute — including the Keston Center and the Journal of Church and State — were dispersed and taken into different places, according to Flowers.

With Baylor canceling all classes, students who were in the Ph.D. program finished it, and as director at the time, Weaver said he made the decision to restructure the Dawson Institute by having one or two lectures annually.

“The irony of that is Baylor is always talking about interdisciplinary work, and they did let go of a master’s program and a Ph.D. program that actually was interdisciplinary,” Weaver said.

Flowers filled Weaver’s role as director of the Dawson Institute in 2021. She said her goal is to “continue the good work of Dr. Weaver.”

“The idea and the concept of the Dawson Institute, and its commitment to the principle of religious liberty, is something I still feel strongly about,” Flowers said. “It’s significant that it’s placed here at Baylor, which is a Baptist university.”

Despite facing limited resources for the Dawson Institute, Flowers said they strive to do what they can with the resources they have.

“We don’t have the financial resources, [but] we do have conversation partners to promote the conversation and to keep the kind of vision that religious liberty is a human right,” Flowers said.

The Dawson Institute’s fall lecture will be at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 29 in Kayser Auditorium. Dr. Joao Chaves, assistant professor of evangelism and mission at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, will be giving a lecture titled “For Jesus, Country and Robert E. Lee: Not Your Momma’s History of Baptist Missions.”