A conflict is brewing at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over how America’s largest protestant denomination will approach religious freedom. The SBC’s International Mission Board (IMB) and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) are both facing criticism for signing onto an amicus brief supporting the rights of a Muslim group in New Jersey to build a mosque. But more lurks underneath the surface.
IMB president David Platt dealt with the controversy over the brief by apologizing for the “distraction” last week. And yet the brief was entirely consistent with the SBC’s position on religious liberty. On this issue, ERLC president Russell Moore does not have any flexibility: Unlike the IMB, the ERLC’s main focus is the political principle of religious freedom. To Moore, that principle is non-negotiable, as he made clear at their 2016 convention:
Nevertheless, some Southern Baptists question whether their work should support religious freedom as a universal, sacred right. Pastor Dean Haun resigned his position with the IMB over the amicus brief, and he told the Baptist and Reflector, “I want no part in supporting a false religion, even if it is in the name of religious freedom.”
This is a mistake. The IMB’s amicus brief was politically sound, and received support from a diverse group including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the National Association of Evangelicals. Moreover, the court ruled in the Muslim group’s favor, which is good news for liberty per se, and for those of other faiths. If “religious freedom for me but not for thee” becomes the SBC’s standard, then the ERLC would morph into the lowest kind of political operation: one that lobbies for special treatment.
This tendency toward tribalism is nothing new. Indeed, it has dogged Moore and his outfit since Moore refused to support Donald Trump. It seems clear that the ERLC would not be facing this pressure over its standard practices if Moore had quietly acquiesced to Trump’s rise. Instead, he wrote at National Review and elsewhere about Trump’s shortcomings on matters of social conservatism.
Using the mosque case as a pretext that Moore is not committed to advancing the gospel, some local pastors are looking to pull funding as retribution against Moore. Prestonwood Baptist Church, a huge congregation in Plano, Texas, announced that it will join Haun’s church in doing that. (The SBC supports the autonomy of local churches on such funding matters.)
Again, this is a mistake. Freedom to assemble has been, in most places and times, the exclusive right of preferred religious groups. America’s enshrinement of religious freedom is as exceptional as it is valuable. Unfortunately, many on the left snidely put “religious liberty” into scare quotes, arguing that it’s time to put florists out of business in order to assert government power to legislate progressive morality. These strident opponents of robust religious freedom would receive a political victory if Southern Baptists descended into infighting about whether the First Amendment applies to Muslims — or if Russell Moore were sacked for not supporting Donald Trump.