From its inception in 1957, the stated purpose of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies has been to stimulate academic interest and encourage research and publication in the broad area of church-state relations, which has been called "the greatest subject in the history of the West." 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, the graduate programs, along with the Church-State Research Center, which provided a vast amount of research material for the graduate programs, was closed in 2012, 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.
In carrying out its statement of purpose, the Institute has from the beginning sought to honor a threefold commitment: to be interfaith, interdisciplinary, and international. 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, everywhere. Religious liberty represents the principle that all human beings have the inalienable right to believe and practice any religion, or no religion at all, and that all governments should remain free from unnecessary entanglements with religion and strive to protect this basic right, which is fundamental to other freedoms and provides the cornerstone of all human rights.
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, Eastern Orthodox, and Jews, as well as members of other religious traditions, have been participants in its conferences and symposia and are regular contributors to its publications.