Baylor University established the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies in 1957, naming it for the longtime pastor of First Baptist, Waco who was also the first executive director of the Baptist Join Commission. Like its namesake, the Institute is dedicated to the study of church-state relations and the promotion of religious freedom. It achieves this by hosting lectures, symposia, and meetings and by cooperating with other Baylor 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.
From its inception the Institute's academic purpose has been to stimulate interest and encourage research and publication in the broad area of church-state relations. For over 50 years, this mission was carried out through graduate programs in Church-State Studies and Religion, Politics, and Society at the Institute. In 2012, both graduate programs and the Church-State Research Center were closed, with the library and manuscript collection integrated into Baylor University’s Moody Library system. The Dawson Institute, however, continues to sponsor educational lectures and annual symposia, conferences, and programs to discuss and study church-state issues, as well as produce the quarterly Journal of Church & State, the leading journal in the field, published by Oxford University Press.
All of the programs of the Institute have been sustained, within an academic setting, by a commitment to the inviolability of religious liberty for all people, of all faiths and no faith. As understood by J.M. Dawson himself, religious liberty represents the principle that all human beings have the inalienable right to believe and practice any religion, or no religion, and that all governments should remain free from unnecessary entanglements with religion and strive to protect this basic right, as fundamental to other freedoms and as the cornerstone of all human and civil rights. While Baptist in its history and heritage, the Institute has from the beginning sought to be interfaith, interdisciplinary, and international in the ways it has understood and applied this commitment.
In the implementation of its programs, the Institute has sought always to be faithful to its purpose and commitment. The Institute has brought to the university distinguished authors and scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines and religious traditions. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Eastern Orthodox, and Jews, for instance, as well as members of other religious traditions, have been participants in its conferences and symposia and are regular contributors to its publications.