In May, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) did something that upset some people. They joined other organizations making a legal appeal supporting the right of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque in a New Jersey township. (The society’s application had previously been denied.)
This move by an SBC agency has left some people confused. Some have been wondering, “Why would we try to help build a mosque?” I’ve even received a number of emails and questions from church members about this story. So let me address it.
To be clear, the ERLC was not using Cooperative Program dollars to build a mosque. They were not doing something for the sake of Islamic beliefs; they were doing something for the sake of Baptist beliefs. They were not promoting Islam, they were, instead, promoting religious liberty – and were 100% right to do it.
Regarding the NJ mosque, Russell Moore answered a question about it at the 2016 SBC Annual Meeting in this way:
Religious liberty is seriously under attack today. And now, more than ever, we need to have a robust understanding of what it is and why it is so important. Let me explain.
- Scripturally speaking, religious liberty is the implicit idea from the Bible’s explicit ideas.
The Bible teaches that men are made in God’s image and have inherent dignity. This is not just true of Baptists or Christians, but all people. Part of what it means to be image-bearers, then, is to have a conscience, spiritual beliefs and the freedom to embrace or reject moral ideas. As such, soul freedom (to make these evaluations) is a God-given, human right.
When Jesus was approached with the question of what we now call the “church and state” issue, He was quite clear. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:21) Taxes belong to Caesar. Respect belongs to Caesar. But a man’s conscience, beliefs, understanding of truth and his notion of religion – does not belong to Caesar. And Caesar should get out of the religious regulation business.
Furthermore, our view of the end times presupposes the benefit of religious liberty. Every man and woman will one day stand alone accountable to God for their belief (or unbelief). They will not have the Supreme Court standing beside them on Judgment Day.
Fighting for religious liberty (even for those we disagree with) is a very biblical thing to do.
- Doctrinally speaking, religious liberty is one of our own articles of faith.
The Bible is dense. Which is why churches often prioritize and summarize the main teachings of Scripture. These are contained in a statement of faith. (Our Declaration of Faith is called The Baptist Faith & Message). Whether you realize it or not, as a church we have an entire article that explains what we believe about religious liberty. It’s that important to us.
Space does not permit me to include it all here (do read Article XVII). But, at its core is this statement,
“A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.”
Fighting for religious liberty (even for those we disagree with) is also a very Forest Baptist Church thing to do.
- Historically speaking, religious liberty is a cornerstone of Baptist belief.
I remember sitting in a Baptist History class in seminary the moment it dawned on me that our greatest contribution to the world – is not baptism by immersion – it’s religious liberty. Our Baptist forefathers preached, fought, and were even jailed for this conviction. Go read about Baptist men like Roger Williams, John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and Isaac Backus. Their lives were given, during the early formation of our country, to create a nation founded on this unique idea.
For example, a Baptist preacher name John Leland wrote Thomas Jefferson and James Madison with a list of religious minorities who should receive the same freedoms as Christians in this new world. His list included “The Turks” (an era-specific term for Muslims.) Interestingly, there is no record of their being any Muslims in the early colonies at all! Leland included them on purpose, “to make clear that his concept of religious freedom was not dependent on a group’s political power.”
A person who says, “Well, I’m Baptist but I don’t believe in protecting the rights of some religions,” is certainly entitled to their opinion, but they should understand that this opinion is in no way, shape or form Baptist. Historically speaking it is the opinion of an Anti-Baptist.
Fighting, then, for religious liberty (even for those we disagree with) is also a very Baptist thing to do.
- Constitutionally speaking, religious liberty is the key freedom for all others.
The first amendment from the Bill of Rights states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Religious liberty is clearly codified in our nation’s founding document.
But, even more, notice the logical order of what comes next. After religious freedom is established, then (and only then), can we also have freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly. Our American forefathers understood that religious liberty is the mother of all true freedom. The reason people join protests, write blogs and put bumper stickers on their car – is because they believe in something. And that belief, inherently, is connected to their worldview (that is, their religious notions.)
Fighting, then, for religious liberty (even for those we disagree with) is also a very American thing to do.
- Practically speaking, religious liberty exists for the common good.
Faith is not a matter of external conformity. It is a matter of internal belief. We all know that putting a sword to a man’s throat and insisting that he say some mantra or sinner’s prayer, does not “convert” him. Therefore, the best possible society is one in which no single religion dominates and in which there is the ability and freedom to persuade and evangelize one another. It helps society be peaceful.
Furthermore, defending religious liberty at this point in our nation, is also an act of self-preservation. A government who paves over the beliefs and freedoms of religious minorities will inevitable do the same with religious majorities. As Russell Moore has said,
“when you have a government that says ‘we can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship,’ then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco, New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.”
Moore’s prediction is looking more and more prophetic.
Fighting, then, for religious liberty (even for those we disagree with) is also a very practical thing to do.
If you want to learn more, I would highly recommend that you read: