In Defense Of Religious Liberty

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

A few months ago, we changed our name from Heritage Baptist Fellowship to Heritage Fellowship: A Cooperative Baptist Church. As we started to wrestle with our growing desire to update our identity, the first question everyone appropriately asked was, “Why? Why do we feel the need to change our name?”

We answered that we were changing our name to emphasize the particular kind of Baptist church we were and that we had two reasons for doing so. First, we said, we’re proud to be a church that identifies with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and we wanted our name to more clearly reflect that identity. And second, we wanted to use our name to try to distinguish ourselves from the sometimes controversial positions and statements of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This week I was reminded of why it’s important for our congregation to let people in our community know that we’re “not that kind of Baptist.”

On June 6th, Gerald Harris, editor of the Christian Index, the official publication of the Georgia Baptist Convention, published an editorial with the headline, “Do Muslims Really Qualify For Religious Freedom Benefits?” As the headline suggests, the editorial goes on to question whether Muslims are deserving of the same First Amendment protections that all Americans enjoy in the United States.

This line of argument represents a clear departure from traditional Baptist values. Baptists have long been on the front lines of defending religious liberty, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. And Baptists have good reasons to be among the most ardent defenders of religious freedom. Today, it’s Muslims being targeted for religious discrimination, but a few centuries ago Baptists were the persecuted minority.

In 1635 Roger Williams founded Rhode Island to flee religious persecution in Massachusetts, and he established the first Baptist church in America there in 1638. He was one of the earliest American defenders of the absolute freedom of conscience, arguing that every American had the right to worship—or not worship—in any manner whatsoever without any interference from government.   

When Baptist pastor Obadiah Holmes was publicly whipped in Boston’s town square in 1651 for practicing his Baptist faith in Massachusetts, the price of religious liberty was literally paid in Baptist blood.

In the late 1700's, the widespread persecution and even imprisonment of Baptists in Virginia led Baptist pastor John Leland to be a leading champion of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia and later to encourage James Madison’s successful efforts to include full religious liberty in the Bill of Rights.

Our Baptist forebears knew first-hand what could happen if the rights of religious minorities were not secured and vigorously defended. As Baptists today, we ought to remember how hard it was to secure the liberties we now enjoy, and use our distinctive history as a reminder to vigorously defend the rights of religious minorities when they are under attack today.

Dr. Harris’s editorial fails to do that.

Instead, in an effort to avoid the appearance—if not the actual fact—of trampling on religious liberty, Dr. Harris argues that Islam shouldn’t be considered a religion at all. He reasons that because Islam has the stated goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate under Islamic law, Islam should be categorized as a geo-political movement—and a threat to American democracy—rather than a religion.

But I wonder what would happen if we applied that same kind of logic to our own faith. Each time Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6). Our Christian hope is located precisely in the belief that the ruling powers of this world will one day be replaced by the absolute rule and reign of Christ (Daniel 7, Rev 11). Maybe Christianity ought to be re-classified as a geo-political movement, too. Of course it sounds ridiculous when we apply the logic to ourselves.

I’m normally reticent to play the critic when someone from another part of the Christian community misspeaks or even honestly states a deeply held conviction that is different from my own. We best model Christ’s behavior when we demonstrate a high tolerance for diversity characterized by forgiveness and charity toward all.

But, when Christian voices speak loudly in favor of religious discrimination and openly denigrate another major faith tradition, people who are listening deserve to know that those voices do not represent all Christians or all Baptists or even all Baptists in Georgia.

The defense of religious liberty isn’t just a central part of our Baptist heritage. Religious liberty is an important part of our American heritage. So the idea that First Amendment protections ought not be extended to Muslims not only offends my sensibilities as a Baptist; it offends my sensibilities as an American, too.  

The United States has been clearly committed to unfettered religious liberty for everyone since our founding. That commitment is a key part of what makes America great. So, for me, defending religious liberty for Muslims isn’t just a matter of faith; it’s a matter of patriotism, too.

See you Sunday.