As previously noted by Paul Crookston at National Review Online (in “Religious Freedom for Me but Not for Thee?”), it is a mistake for Baptists, such as megachurch pastors Dean Haun and Mike Buster, to abandon the cause of religious liberty being led by Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). This is not only because the amicus brief signed onto by the ERLC was both legally sound and ultimately successful, but because the history of Baptists in America demands it. It was not so long ago that Baptists were “the Muslims” fighting for the right to construct their own houses of worship.
Moore received mixed responses last summer when he agreed with the ERLC’s position and publicly defended the religious rights of Muslims to construct mosques in the United States. Some at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) called for the firing of any SBC official who supported the rights of Muslims to build mosques, and they recommended the removal of the ERLC’s name from the amicus brief. Some even went so far as to posit that Muslims do not deserve the same religious freedoms as Christians. Even though the U.S. district court of New Jersey has since ruled in favor of the mosque’s construction in Bernards Township, some corners of the SBC have continued to criticize Moore and the ERLC. Those Baptists continuing to oppose Moore should take time to consider the history of their spiritual forefathers.
While today we tend to think of America as the world’s beacon for religious liberty, a city on a hill, 17th- and 18th-century Baptists would have begged to differ. In the colonies, Baptist rejection of infant baptism was considered abhorrent by the established churches. To Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, this deviation from tradition was demonic and divisive.
Accordingly, Baptists endured harassment, including, fines, prohibition against their services, flogging, and even jail time. Massachusetts outlawed Baptists altogether in 1645, calling them “the troublers of churches in all places.” As a result of the government’s response, much of the populace developed a distinct hostility toward the Baptists.
This motivated many Baptists, and other non-Protestant minorities, to remain loyal to England throughout the American Revolution. It was hard to support a rebellion for “equality” of representation when many of the revolutionaries didn’t regard Baptists as religious equals. Baptists’ loyalist leanings only brought them further political animosity.
Isaac Backus, the famous Baptist preacher and statesman, attended the Continental Congress in 1774, seeking relief for his brethren. But most attendees labeled Backus an overly hysterical alarmist. John Adams even told Backus that a shift in the solar system was more likely than an end to the established church of Massachusetts. Thus, persecution against Baptists endured throughout the American Revolution. They continued to be taxed to support the established churches but received none of the revenue for themselves (a.k.a. taxation without representation).
Later, with massive Baptist support, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) enshrined the principle that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever . . . nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” Thus began the idea of the wall of separation between civil and ecclesiastical affairs. The 1786 law provided important precedent for Madison’s First Amendment in 1789. Later, in their famous letter in 1801 to then President Jefferson, the Danbury Baptists expressed concern over a lack of explicit protection for their religious liberties in the Connecticut constitution. Jefferson’s reply, which drew heavily on Roger Williams’s formulation of a “hedge of separation,” solidified the “wall of separation” concept based on the establishment clause.
Despite these legislative victories, Baptists did not expect politicians to do the church’s work for them. They opposed hostility toward religion, but they did not jockey for government favors. Civil authorities, they believed, should simply protect free exercise of religion for all. They preferred to depend upon the power of God, rather than government, to accomplish the purposes of the church.
Isaac Backus and John Leland, another Baptist hero for religious liberty, spoke out for the freedom of the soul in behalf of Jews, Muslims, and atheists alike. The principle was that religious freedom is not a spoil of politics, to be divvied out to — and defined by — the highest bidder. This was the very “sin” of which Backus was accusing Massachusetts. Rather, as Russell Moore has said, religious freedom is a transcendent right, acknowledged by government but impossible to legislate into, or out of, existence.
Liberty of conscience was not only a natural right to Backus; it was also a spiritual, nonnegotiable reality that could not be controlled by any earthly institution. People could be forced into outward conformity and compliance, a fact of English history that Backus felt the Massachusetts legislature was too quick to forget, but men’s souls remained free. Anything else would be “lip service and vain worship,” as he called it. Moore echoed Backus at the SBC convention last summer when, responding to criticism regarding the amicus brief, he stated, “What it means to be Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody.”
Coercion by outside forces to disobey one’s conscience would provide no excuse against divine judgment for the disobedient individual. In his 1773 pamphlet “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty,” Backus noted that religion was “a voluntary obedience unto God which therefore force cannot promote.”
To control religion is to attempt to hamper the effectual call by God on the souls of men. Men must be allowed to seek reconciliation with the divine. And civil government, acting in just accordance with its ordained function, must protect this process. In this way, government, like the church, is concerned with the souls of its populace.
Like Backus, modern Baptists must simultaneously be patriots and Christians, advocates for individual freedom of conscience while appealing to the souls of men to seek reconciliation with God. In this dual role, Baptists recognize that man’s ultimate good is union with Christ, that man is personally responsible before God, and that government is ordained by God. Everyone, including Muslims, is made in the image of God, possessing inherent dignity that is expressed in and through human capacity to hold sincere religious beliefs. This was clearly evident to Backus, and should be more evident to modern Baptists who have enjoyed living in a pluralistic society in existence for centuries.
Given the shift in American demographics, it might not be long before the Baptists are once again a powerless minority. And this time, it might be Muslims before whom they are pleading for ‘soul freedom.’
The hypocrisy of those who criticize interfaith alliances for common purposes, like the alliance in the New Jersey mosque case, is that while they accuse such coalitions of putting politics before God, their underlying motive is to use the government to bolster and secure the faith of their choice. In reality, they are dishonoring the Baptist tradition of religious liberty established by those before them. What’s more, their position is short-sighted. Given the present shift in American demographics, it might not be too long before the Baptists are once again a powerless minority. And this time, it might be Muslims before whom they are pleading for “soul freedom.”
As the foundation of all our civil liberties, religious freedom is not and cannot be a Christian privilege only. We should eagerly work with our fellow citizens of other faiths to preserve this liberty, not because we agree on who God is, but because we do agree that the government does not get to answer that question for us. The type of coalition-building employed in the New Jersey mosque case mirrors the strange partnership that arguably established religious freedom itself in America (for instance, with Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists).
We should commend current leaders like Russell Moore who are furthering this facet of the Baptist tradition. Indeed, their efforts not only honor the Baptists who suffered for the cause of religious freedom, but they also coincide with the SBC doctrinal statement, which says that in order to bring earthly institutions “under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love . . . Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause.”
— Timon Cline is a lifelong Baptist.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was originally published at Conciliar Post.