Letter: Baptists have historically supported religious liberty for all, not just some

Recently I have heard quite a lot of banter, both online and in person, regarding withdrawing support from the Cooperative Program over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s (specifically, ERLC president Russell Moore’s) recent activities regarding an ongoing federal court case involving a Muslim group’s desire to build a mosque in a New Jersey township.

There has been much controversy about Moore and the ERLC’s filing of an amicus brief in support of the legal position that the Muslim group has a right to build the facility, with some accusing Moore of leading the SBC to become “unequally yoked” with unbelievers. This controversy and these accusations are baseless and fly in the face of the traditional and historic Baptist faith and practice.

I am particularly disheartened by the rhetoric from some church leaders who promote misleading (at best) accusations fueled by sensationalist headlines written by authors who seek more to create a buzz than they seek to inform. We would all do well to inform ourselves with facts from reliable sources rather than from outlets who seek to create an audience by appealing to our fleshly desire for conflict.

Additionally, we would do well to remember that Baptists in America have worked to provide religious liberty for all, not just those with whom they were theologically aligned. We can trace the thread of Baptist support for religious liberty throughout our common history to the very foundation of our country. It runs from John Williams (who founded the very first Baptist church in America) protecting the Quakers despite his beliefs that their theology was false and motives questionable, to Isaac Backus’ opposition to the Massachusetts constitution, to John Leland’s fight in Virginia.

Our historic Baptist leaders fought for religious liberty — not as a political platform, but as part of their theology, closely identifying freedom from governmental interference with the practice of one’s religion with individual soul liberty. It was George W. Truett (pastor of First Baptist Dallas from 1897-1944 and a past president of the SBC) who said in his sermon, “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” delivered on the steps of the United States Capitol in 1920, “Their (Baptists’) contention now is, and has been, and please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental indefensible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of conscience, and, as long as this does not infringe upon the rights of others, they are to be held accountable to God alone for all religious beliefs and practices.”

I applaud Moore and the ERLC for their strong stance in opposition to any entity (other than God Almighty) who attempts to interfere with one’s free practice of religion, whether I agree with their religion or not. We must stand with Moore, the ERLC, and our historic Baptist leaders for, as Truett put it, the “fundamental indefensible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of conscience.” To not do so is to risk losing the freedom to practice our religion as we see fit.

Henry Criss
Lead Pastor
Faith Baptist Church of Ridgeland, S.C.