Religious freedom for me, but not for thee.
That was the message members of the Southern Baptist Church sent loud and clear to their leadership after the International Mission Board and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission filed an amicus brief last year on behalf of a planned mosque in New Jersey.
On Wednesday, Southern Baptist International Mission Board president David Platt issued an apology to the 15-million-member denomination and his board of directors over his group’s involvement in fighting for the religious liberty of American Muslims:
“I apologize to Southern Baptists for how distracting and divisive this has been. I am confident that in the days ahead, the IMB will have better processes in place to keep us focused on our primary mission: partnering with churches to empower limitless missionary teams who are evangelizing, discipling, planting and multiplying healthy churches, and training leaders among unreached peoples and places for the glory of God.”
The Baptist and Reflector reports that “Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, expressed appreciation for the IMB leader’s apology.”
“‘“I am very comfortable from having spent some time with Dr. Platt that this will not be an issue moving forward.”
Yikes. Go to your room, Dr. Platt, and think about what you did.
When I posted the story to Facebook, one Southern Baptist blogger suggested this whole kerfuffle was really about misuse of resources, not advocacy for the religious liberty of Muslims. The Mission Board exists for evangelism, not legal wrangling, he said. That’s the job of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
This strikes me as an obvious fig leaf for three reasons.
First, Platt’s apology was prompted by a Mission Board trustee who resigned in protest when he found out about the amicus brief. It’s hard to imagine this trustee stormed off because Platt violated the technical boundaries of denominational bureaucracy and did someone else’s job. It’s a lot easier to imagine he did so because he was torqued about the agency helping a mosque get built. Signing an amicus brief is a negligible use of time and resources, and Platt says the IMB has been filing briefs related to religious liberty since 2010, before his tenure there even began.
Second, the Mission Board has an obvious interest in protecting the liberties of non-Christian religions here in the United States. It sends thousands of Baptist missionaries around the globe, many to countries with Muslim majorities. Failing to defend the liberties of Muslims in America makes it exceptionally difficult to advocate for religious tolerance for themselves overseas. It rightly strikes the native people as hypocritical. And it could even put Baptist missionaries in danger of reprisals.
Third, I don’t buy the bureaucracy excuse because it’s clear Baptists don’t want even their dedicated religious freedom arm advancing religious freedom for Muslims. How do I know this?
Platt’s–heh–radical act of contrition comes just a few weeks after calls for SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president, Russell Moore, to step down over his criticism of then president-elect Donald Trump. Evidently a popular uprising of Baptist pastors and laypeople didn’t think Moore’s discussion of Trump’s ethics fell within his job description. And many were worried the ERLC president’s outspoken criticism would hamper Baptist “access” to the halls of power in Trump’s White House.
Southern Baptists are also hopping mad that their denomination’s lobbying arm joined its mission arm in defending the right of Muslims to build houses of worship in America. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, evidently, is in trouble for defending religious liberty.
When I posted the story about Platt’s apology to Facebook, I got all kinds of angry comments from Baptists and other evangelicals puzzled over why I want a “dangerous and violent” false religion building temples in the United States. Some may find this anti-Muslim bigotry all too typical of the Bible Belt. But it’s actually a bizarre turn of events if you know the history of the Baptist tradition.
In 1611 Thomas Helwys, one of the founders of the Baptist movement in England, wrote a book entitled, “A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity.” Essentially, it was a treatise on religious liberty and the role of the government in regulating doctrine and practice. Baptists in those days were fiercely persecuted for not conforming to the Church of England’s standards. Helwys responded with this moving appeal to King James for toleration:
“We do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
It was a stance that ultimately defined the Baptist posture toward politics and religious freedom for centuries to come. And I have to admit: As a Presbyterian, I am a member of a confessional tradition that got this issue dead wrong until fairly recently. The Baptists were right from the beginning. Demanding adherence to a certain religion to enjoy full citizenship and privileges is antithetical to the U.S. Constitution, and more importantly, to the free and genuine spread of the Gospel. Christianity should never be a religion that says to unbelievers or heretics: “convert or suffer temporal consequences.” Our weapons are not the weapons of this world.
But as another friend shrewdly observed, where you stand on this depends a great deal on where you sit. When Baptist political theology developed, Baptists were a persecuted religious minority. In the United States in 2017, they are the single largest Protestant denomination, and the de facto representatives of all evangelicals at gatherings like the National Prayer Breakfast and the inauguration. As religious influence goes these days, the Southern Baptist Church is awash in political power. Is it any wonder so many in the laity and clergy have changed their tune on freedom for religious minorities like Muslims (or in Helwys’ language, “Turks”)?
Many Baptist laypeople and pastors say they’re upset that the Mission Board and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission are “helping spread a false religion” by advocating for the First Amendment rights of Muslims. After all, they pay Russel Moore’s and David Platt’s salaries. They shouldn’t see their money used in ways they don’t approve, right?
I’m pretty convinced this is the real reason Platt apologized, not a technicality about the scope of his agency’s duties. But it’s a deeply and troublingly misguided argument.
The Southern Baptist Church is not “helping spread Islam” any more than John Adams was helping King George’s cause when he defended the redcoats after the Boston Massacre. He volunteered to ensure these British subjects got a fair trial. He was upholding the core English and hence American principle of the impartial rule of law. And religious liberty is another such core principle–one enshrined on the first line of the Bill of Rights. What’s more, that principle applies to everyone. If the law is allowed to hinder one group from worshiping, it may hinder all groups. ERLC and the IMB were advancing this principle admirably.
Almost certainly, none of the Baptists raising Cain over the New Jersey mosque would bat an eye if ERLC or IMB were defending members of a Jewish synagogue. Judaism, according to the New Testament, is also a false religion–perhaps more culpably so than Islam.
But the situation gets even more embarrassing. As my friend and former coworker John Ehrett mentioned on Facebook, when his denomination (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) was involved in a Supreme Court case about the right of churches to hire employees who agree with their doctrines, Muslims came to their aid. In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the Muslim-American Public Affairs Commission and the American Islamic Congress both filed amicus briefs in the defense of Christians’ religious freedom. The Court ruled in their favor, 9-0. In Ehrett’s words, these Islamic groups recognized that “what affects one will inevitably affect all.”
It seems American Muslims are more dedicated to religious liberty than many in the Southern Baptist Church. Platt should not have had to apologize, and neither should Russell Moore. Both were acting consistently with centuries of Baptist history and advocacy for tolerance and freedom, not to mention with American jurisprudence. It’s their critics who have stepped into dangerous territory. And as a member of a Protestant tradition moving in the opposite direction on this issue, I can promise my Baptist brothers: There’s nothing good back there. Remember your history. Turn around.