Prior to the Founding Fathers’ prohibition against the establishment of religion and support for the free exercise of religion, Baptists were speaking up for the right to worship.
Before John Locke elegantly wrote about religious liberty, Baptists were already defending the rights of other religious traditions to practice openly their faith.
Religious liberty is part of the Baptist genetic code. Since Roger Williams, few have been able to discuss Baptist values or distinctives without pointing to a long history of religious liberty.
While most Baptists still advocate passionately for this long history, not all contemporary Baptists consistently promote religious freedom.
Nothing illustrates this growing trend better than Southern Baptist agency head Richard Land’s recent withdrawal from the Anti-Defamation League’s Interfaith Coalition on Mosques (ICOM).
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has battled anti-Semitism since 1913. It recently established the ICOM to assist “Muslim communities who are being denied permission to build mosques in their neighborhood.” The formation of the ICOM was seen by some as a positive move following the ADL’s open opposition to the construction of a new Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York.
This fall the coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief in opposition to a suit filed against the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Unfortunately, Land withdrew from the coalition Jan. 21.
“While many Southern Baptists share my deep commitment to religious freedom and the right of Muslims to have places of worship, they also feel that a Southern Baptist denominational leader filing suit to allow individual mosques to be built is ‘a bridge too far,'” Land said.
Land’s comments are similar to religious leaders during the civil rights movement who claimed to oppose racism but watched as blacks were forced to sit in the back of a bus or refused to protect protesters who were brutalized by police.
One cannot claim he is for religious freedom or racial equality and passively watch as injustice occurs. One’s ideals must be manifested in the real world. Actions are required, or the ideals are useless. Therefore, the defense of religious liberty requires leaders to rise up and publicly defend minority groups.
Land’s withdrawal illustrates the two-faced nature of many Baptist churches, as well as our American culture. Even as Land withdrew from the ICOM, he said, “As Baptists, we believe in religious freedom, that is the right of people to the free exercise of their faith without interference from government authorities.”
It would have been more accurate if Land had described his Baptist commitment to religious freedom as a belief in his group’s right to practice and spread its faith.
Baptists who think like Land are inconsistent. They passionately argue for their right to worship, and they constantly lobby governments to help protect Baptists and Christians in other countries – but they forget to do the same for other faith groups.
If it is a moral obligation to defend the right of Christians to freely worship, then it is equally an obligation to defend others who have that same right.
Religious freedom is more than a fairness principle. We, as Baptists, cannot truly have religious freedom without ensuring that others have that same freedom. Too often religious liberty is seen as an instrumental good that protects one’s right to worship as he or she sees fit.
The truth that Baptists should never forget is that religious liberty is an intrinsic good. It is not about ensuring my rights; it is about creating room so worshipers can express themselves openly and wholeheartedly before the living God.
As 19th-century Congregationalist pastor Henry Ward Beecher argued, “Liberty is the soul’s right to breathe, and when it cannot take a long breath, laws are girded too tight.”
More so, religious liberty is the soul’s right to breathe in the experience of God. The protection of religious liberty is the protection of people’s right to encounter God both in traditional and contemporary modes of expression.
We need to continue championing the ideal of our forefathers. Religious liberty must become a battle cry that does more than protect our rights. All Christians need to defend the rights of others – even the rights of those who hold beliefs in opposition to our own.
The Baptist commitment to religious liberty demands that we actively engage the culture and defend the rights of all faith traditions – even if it means filing a lawsuit.
Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center – Little Rock and an adjunct instructor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.