By Marv Knox
If you sense the earth shaking under your feet as you celebrate our nation’s birthday this week, it’s because you are feeling the vibrations of our Baptist forebears spinning in their graves.
Led by the president and abetted by the Supreme Court, religious liberty is under assault in the United States. Baptist heroes from across four centuries would be appalled if they lived to witness this travesty.
Of course, some politicians and preachers claim to be salvaging “religious freedom” in America. Reprehensibly, they define the term as the right of people who believe just as they do to do whatever they want and cover it by claiming it’s their religious right.
For example, in a ruling that turned more narrowly on the comments of government officials than on the individuals at the center of the case, the high court gave sanction to discrimination against LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the justices ruled 7-2 in favor of a Christian baker who declined to bake a cake for the wedding reception of a gay couple. The ruling turned on the Colorado commissioners’ disparaging remarks about the baker’s religious beliefs and avoided determining whether the baker’s refusal violated the state’s non-discrimination law.
Still, the narrow ruling gave implied sanction to discrimination based upon religious belief. Ironically, as a brief filed by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty implies, Colorado’s law intends to protect people from religious discrimination.
Holly Hollman, the Baptist Joint Committee’s general counsel, noted: “Religious liberty protects beliefs and actions related to marriage. It does not mean that religious beliefs provide blanket exemptions to nondiscrimination laws that protect our neighbors.”
Just last week, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” The decision supported a temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from eight countries, including six whose populations include a majority of Muslims.
The president repeatedly has criticized Muslims and even called one version of his proposal a “Muslim ban.” By his own words, the law singles out adherents of the Islamic faith for discrimination, which violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.
“Safeguarding religious liberty requires the government to remain neutral with regard to religion, neither favoring one religion over another nor preferring religion or irreligion,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. “More than ever, preserving American religious freedom requires the active involvement of all citizens to denounce religious bigotry in all its forms.”
Beyond this, the president is bent on politicizing churches and other houses of worship by attempting to repeal the “Johnson Amendment,” which protects churches, religious organizations and other non-profits from pressure to endorse or oppose political candidates.
These and other initiatives undermine religious liberty for all Americans. Baptists have championed that principle from the very beginning.
Four centuries ago, Baptist founder Thomas Helwys stood up to King James I of England, asserting God, and not the monarch, was lord of human conscience. In the colonies, Roger Williams, who started the first Baptist church in America, founded Rhode Island as a place of freedom for people of all faiths—including Muslims—and no faith. Later, Baptist pastor John Leland helped influence James Madison to include religious liberty guarantees in the First Amendment. A century ago, George W. Truett, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, championed religious liberty for all people, a tradition upheld with honor by Baptist Joint Committee leaders James Dunn, Brent Walker and Tyler.
All this is why elections and Supreme Court nominations are vital for the future of our nation and, particularly for religious liberty. In the process to nominate a successor to Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, abortion will take the spotlight. In the mid-term elections, political control of Congress will capture the focus.
But the future of religious liberty is at stake. Baptists and others who treasure our nation’s noble heritage must protect faith freedom from the assault of those who don’t give a flying firecracker for the rights of anyone but themselves.
Marv Knox is field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest.