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Why Baptists should be the first to defend religious freedom for Muslims

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has formed a diverse religious coalition to back the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, N.J., in its federal lawsuit against a planning board that denied its permit application to build a mosque last December.1 The denial followed four years of hearings and numerous modifications to the mosque design in a good faith attempt to reassure neighbors and to conform to local architectural styles. The New York Times reported in March that the group’s plans met local zoning standards required for houses of worship but that one outspoken opponent cited sharia law as a threat to American liberties. The Islamic Society sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. The suit falls under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits zoning discrimination based on religion. The case has come to represent how Islamic minorities are facing the Islamophobia prevalent in American society.

“A Muslim mosque cannot be subjected to a different land-use approval process than a Christian church simply because local protesters oppose the mosque,” the suit’s introduction declares, asking for a 12(c) motion for partial judgment on the pleadings.2 Almost twenty faith-based organizations filed an amicus brief arguing that the mosque project be approved, citing issues of consistency, fairness, and freedom of conscience. The authors including Hare Krishna, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian groups. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), the International Mission Board (IMB), and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) are three of those groups.

The three Baptist-affiliated groups, along with the National Association of Evangelicals, which supported a Muslim woman’s successful Supreme Court case over Abercrombie & Fitch’s employee dress code policy prohibition against hijabs, have received significant flak from Evangelicals and fellow Baptists for taking part in the inter-faith alliance. ERLC President Russell Moore received mixed responses earlier this summer for his comments, in defense of the ERLC’s position, in which he publicly defended the religious rights of Muslims. Some pastors at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) called for the firing of any SBC official who supported the rights of Muslims to build mosques and for the removal of the ERLC’s name from the amicus brief. Gerald Harris, editor of the Christian Index, a Georgia Baptist newspaper, wrote that Muslims do not deserve the same religious freedoms as Christians.   

Modern Baptists who are hostile towards the religious freedoms of Muslims groups are too quick to forget that less than 300 years ago, we (Baptists) were the “Muslims.” While today we tend to think of America as a bastion of religious liberty, 17th and 18th century Baptists would have had a very different perspective. Although many of America’s founding fathers derived religious freedom from Enlightenment thought, American Baptists developed adherence to religious liberty through their own encounters with persecution at the hands of the state-sponsored churches.

In the colonies, Baptist rejection of paedobaptism was considered abhorrent by the established churches, no matter how much the Baptists argued that credobaptism was the biblical mode.3 To Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, this deviation from tradition was demonic and divisive. Baptists endured harassment, fines, prohibition against their services, and even jail time for this view.4 Not to mention difficulty obtaining land and building permits for their houses of worship. Massachusetts largely led the charge. The colony outlawed Baptists altogether in 1645, calling them “the troublers of churches in all places.” In 1651, Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist preacher in Boston, received an arbitrary prison sentence and thirty lashes for his alleged proselytizing.5 This was not an isolated incident. Yet, not all the foul treatment was institutional. There existed a distinct animus towards the Baptists and other dissenters amongst the average populace. Baptist preacher, James Ireland, was often urinated on whilst preaching.6 Quakers were often treated even more harshly. As you might have guessed, those who harassed the Baptists and Quakers were not punished. This caused many Baptists, along with Catholics and other non-Protestant minorities, to remain loyal to England throughout the American War for Independence. It was hard to support a rebellion for “equality” of representation that didn’t see Baptists as religious equals. This only served to bring 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 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 Massachusetts established church. Thus, persecution against Baptists endured throughout the War for Independence. They would continue to be taxed to support the established churches, yet receive none of the revenue for their own denomination (a.k.a. taxation without representation).7 Their preachers would continue to be considered rogue, unlicensed, uneducated ruffians who would be jailed whenever they stirred up trouble.     

Later, with massive Baptist support, Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, in 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,” and thus began to erect the idea of the wall of separation between civil and ecclesiastical affairs.8 The 1786 law provided important precedent for the First Amendment in 1789.

Despite these legislative victories, Baptists did not expect politicians to do the church’s work for them.9 They wanted the government to protect religious liberty, so the church could be the church. 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 Kingdom.

Isaac Backus and John Leland, another Baptist hero for religious liberty, spoke out for “soul freedom” on behalf of Jews, Muslims, and even atheists, though few existed in America in that era.10 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.11 Rather, religious freedom is a transcendent right, acknowledged by government, but impossible to legislate into, or out of, existence.12

Behind these views rests a unique social philosophy. Backus rejected Lockean theory of natural rights and social contract, considering them irreconcilable with human depravity. Government, therefore, was ordained to control man’s selfishness, and was thereby not a product of human cooperation and benevolence, but a necessity instituted by God, in varying forms, after the Fall. Accordingly, the general notion that liberty was for each to define at leisure was heretical to Backus, and government was essential at the base level to enjoy any liberty whatsoever.

Liberty of conscience was not a natural right to Backus, but a spiritual, non-negotiable 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.”13 God alone controls the formation of his Church and the appointment of its ministers, a position posited in an early pamphlet by Backus entitled An Internal Call, which challenged Massachusetts’ requirement that all ordained ministers have a college education. Coercion by outside forces to disobey God and conscience would provide no excuse against Divine judgment. “[R]eligion,” Backus noted, “is a voluntary obedience unto God which therefore force cannot promote” (emphasis in the original). The church was armed with the gospel to conquer men’s iniquities and “gain souls for Christ,” while the state was armed with the sword to guard the church’s ability to fulfill her role.14

To control religion is to attempt to hamper the effectual call by God on the souls of men. Whether such hampering is actually effective in deterring the work of the Spirit in the lives of men is irrelevant here. The act alone would be an affront to God’s work and must therefore be rejected. 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 is, like the church, concerned with the souls of its populace. This is its holistic protection of citizens from evil. And as servants of God we must ensure that the government performs this function. As Christian, citizen-office-holders we have double-duty in this capacity.

Like Backus, modern Baptists must simultaneously be patriots and Christians.15 Advocates for individual freedom of conscience whilst appealing to the souls of men to seek reconciliation with God. Doing so recognizes that man’s ultimate good is union with Christ, and that government must reflect God’s nature by representing that men have free will and personal responsibility before the throne of God. To do otherwise is dishonest in our witness and disloyal to Scripture. Government is to provide this common good and safety of conscience to all, whether the populace is slave to Christ or slave to heresy, until Christ’s return. We understand that everyone, including Muslims, are 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 for centuries.

The hypocrisy of those who criticize inter-faith alliances for common purposes, like the one 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 using their misplaced advocacy for faith as a means to acquire what they think will be earthly, physical security. They are also dishonoring the Baptist tradition of religious liberty established by those before them.

Yet, the folly of such a viewpoint goes well beyond mere lack of empathy and foolish self-interested karma. The roots of the Baptist stance for religious liberty run deep with concern for the souls of the lost and the desire to see all reconciled to God through Christ. Not only is Baptist-led intolerance hypocritical, but in the Christian narrative, it is self-sabotage. Christianity has never flourished for long in an environment where it is the official (and eventually oppressive) religion. Though he works through people to reveal and effectuate his love to the world, Christ and His Gospel do not need the “help” of man-made coercion. It’s appropriate here to employ the famous words of the “Prince of Preachers” to support my point,

The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.16

Baptists need to follow Spurgeon’s lead and regain their confidence in the power of the Word.

For the sake of society and for the sake of a real and effective Gospel, Baptists must be true patriots and at the same time resist those “patriots” of tyranny. Religious freedom is not and cannot be a “Christian privilege” only, and cannot be “a partisan or parochial issue, precisely because it is our ‘first freedom,’ the foundation of all civil liberties.”17 “A state that can pave over the conscience without a compelling interest in doing so,” is a state without limits.18 We should eagerly work with our fellow citizens of other faiths, 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 being employed in the New Jersey mosque case mirrors the strange partnership that arguably established religious freedom itself in America (i.e. Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists).

When people like Newt Gingrich suggest encroachment on religious freedoms, we Baptist should proudly be the first bulwark of defense, remembering the persecution that our denomination forefathers endured for the inception of these very rights. We should be the first to remind our fellow citizens of times when America, out of fear, selfishness, and ignorance, has unjustly persecuted its citizens for their ethnic and religious affiliations.19

Current Baptist leaders who are furthering this facet of the Baptist tradition should be commended and supported. Indeed, by doing so, their efforts coincide with the SBC doctrinal statement, which says that in order to bring earthly institutions “under the sway of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love […] Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause.”20

Alleged “Baptists” who cannot oblige this view, have departed markedly from historic21 and current Baptist principles, and should find another religious tradition with which to affiliate themselves, for they are fundamentally un-Baptist.22 Employing Churchill to speak for the true Baptists, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which [we] will not put.”

Note: A version of this article is also published in The National Review.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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