The proposed construction of a mosque in New Jersey has prompted discussion among Southern Baptists of the proper way to protect Muslims’ religious liberty.
June 9, a trio of Southern Baptist professors – Jason Duesing, provost at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Thomas White, president of Cedarville University; and Malcolm Yarnell, professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary – issued an open letter deeming it “inappropriate to question whether Muslims should retain the right freely to practice their religion” even though “granting such rights to some forms of Islam might one day lead to the threatening of Christians in our worship[LC1] [LC2] [LC3] .”
Muslims pray at a mosque in Abidjan's Koumassi quartier before breaking a fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
The letter (see below for complete text) came in response to a June 6 editorial by Gerald Harris, editor of Georgia’s Christian Index newsjournal, who argued Islam “may be more of a geo-political movement than a religion” and may not qualify for all the First Amendment protections granted to religions. In his editorial, Harris critiqued the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the International Mission Board (IMB) for taking the mosque’s side in an amicus brief filed in a lawsuit seeking to have building permit denials overturned.
Meanwhile, a local pastor told Baptist Press (BP) the Muslim group behind the mosque “received the same treatment from our local planning boards that many of our churches do.” He deemed local authorities’ actions “consistent” despite claims made in the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge’s lawsuit.
The ‘first freedom’
Duesing, White and Yarnell, editors of “First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty” (B&H), wrote that they “agree with [Harris’] effort to inform readers of teachings within Islam that are not fully known in the public square.” But they said they “disagree” with the specific manner in which some of Harris’ concerns were expressed.
Among the arguments offered by the three professors:
- “We believe, as Americans, that our Constitution guarantees the ‘first freedom’ among all human freedoms, the freedom of religion with all of its benefits. For Christian Americans to question whether Muslim Americans qualify for religious freedom is essentially a question about whether all Americans are under the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
- “We believe, as Baptists, that questioning whether Muslims deserve religious liberty is foreign to the historic Baptist understanding of biblical faith and practice.”
- “We believe, as Southern Baptists, that universal religious liberty is a nonnegotiable aspect of our denomination’s theology.”
Ultimately, they wrote, “any attempt to inhibit religious liberty will only prove to be a hindrance to reaching these precious men and women, created in God’s image, with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Religious freedom for whom?
In his editorial, Harris asserted that “Muslims around the world and in our own country” have shouted “death to America” on some occasions and that mosques “often promote Sharia Law and become training grounds for radicalizing Muslims.” He quoted four commentators who have argued Islam “has a religious component” but, taken to its logical end, seeks to overcome western civilization.
That led Harris to state, “Do Southern Baptist entities need to come to the defense of a geo-political movement that has basically set itself against Western Civilization? Even if Islam is a religion must we commit ourselves to fight for the religious freedom of a movement that aggressively militates against other religions?”
Harris added, “Freedom of religion in America is designated to protect the rights and dignity of different religious communities, so they can practice their respective rites and ordinances without fear and interference. However, religious freedom for Muslims means allowing them the right to establish Islam as the state religion, subjugating infidels, even murdering those who are critics of Islam and those who oppose their brutal religion. In essence they want to use our democracy to establish their theocracy (with Allah as supreme). Their goal politically is to destroy the Constitution with its imbedded freedom and democracy and replace it with Sharia Law.”
Just as “Americans kept Communism in check during the Cold War,” Harris wrote, “will we do the same when another political ideology endangers our future?”
Harris’ editorial, at http://christianindex.org/muslims-really-qualify-religious-freedom-benefits/, drew responses from the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and at least two Southern Baptist Convention entity heads.
CAIR invited Harris to attend a Ramadan Interfaith Dinner at a mosque on June 18 to “recognize the common values that unite all Americans.” Harris told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s willing to meet with CAIR members though he may have a conflict with that specific date.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin tweeted June 8 that Harris’ editorial was “a very bad article,” pointing to a response on the SBC Voices blog that critiqued the state paper editor’s viewpoint.
ERLC President Russell Moore did not mention Harris by name in a June 8 blog post but addressed the argument that adherents of radical Islam should not be granted religious liberty.
“Religious liberty is never an excuse for violence and crime, nor has religious liberty been so construed in American history,” Moore wrote. “The United States government should fight, and fight hard, against radical Islamic jihadism. But the government should not penalize law-abiding people, especially those who are American citizens, simply for holding their religious convictions, however consistent or inconsistent, true or false, those convictions are.
“Some would say,” Moore continued, “based on their reading of the Koran, that non-violent Muslims are inconsistent Muslims, the equivalent of cafeteria Catholics. The government’s job, though, is to punish evildoers for evil-doing, not to decide who is most theologically consistent with their professed religions.”
A threat to all religious liberty?
The pro-mosque amicus brief – signed by 16 groups in addition to the ERLC and IMB and filed May 11 in a federal district court – argues Bernards Township, N.J., has “improperly applied different legal standards to a mosque simply because it is a mosque.”
This alleged discrimination, the brief stated, “represents a potential threat to the free exercise rights of each of the amici represented here and is an affront to our nation’s commitment to religious liberty for all.”
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge has been attempting to build a mosque “for almost a decade,” according to a news release from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group spearheading the amicus brief. NJ.com reported local officials rejected construction plans allegedly because of “a lack of details regarding parking, traffic safety and buffer zones bordering the site’s residential neighbors.”
Derek Gaubatz, IMB general counsel, told BP in written comments, “While the party in this case is Muslim, the precedent handed down here in New Jersey will have a significant impact on whether churches, especially small church plants trying to gain a foothold and a home of their own in a secular place like New Jersey, can use this important religious freedom law to ensure that they have the right to build and operate a gospel-preaching church in New Jersey.”
A local perspective
A local New Jersey pastor who has served as president of the Baptist Convention of New York told BP the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) does not appear to have been treated differently than local Christian churches. He asked not to be identified by name because “the ISBR has filed a lawsuit and is issuing subpoenas to many of the residents who actively opposed the mosque construction.”
The pastor said in an email, “Having lived and served in this area for many years now, I have seen how difficult it can be for area churches to receive building and expansion permits from the local planning board. A few years back I sadly watched as a local Baptist church attempted to relocate within our township only to be voted down by the planning board. The church spent hundreds of thousands of dollars only to be told that their site plan did not, and probably would never, meet all the requirements. Local residents raised even more money to defeat them.
“The same scenario played out for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, Inc. (ISBR),” the pastor wrote. “After countless hours of deliberation and dozens of planning board meetings, the mosque site plan was denied. Did the community speak out against a mosque being built in their neighborhood? Absolutely! The majority of residents in Bernards Township seem dead set against any new religious facility being built in their backyards. But, as noted earlier, they also rose up and adamantly opposed the relocation of a local Baptist church.
“Do I believe the religious liberties of the ISBR were violated? Well if they were, then it was true of the Baptist church as well. And I didn’t see them bring a lawsuit claiming such violations. No, the ISBR received the same treatment from our local planning boards that many of our churches do. I may not always like the planning board’s decisions related to new church construction, but at least they are consistent,” he wrote.
NJ.com reported the ISBR has spent more than $450,000 attempting to get its building plan approved by local authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation concerning the matter.
Please see full text of open letter below.
An Open Letter for Preserving the First Freedom of Universal Religious Liberty
We are compelled by conscience to respond publicly to a June 6 public editorial penned by a revered Southern Baptist newspaper editor. Before reading our fourfold response, please allow us a preliminary word to our brother in Christ and to the general reader:
First, to our brother in Christ, please know that we write as those who share your concerns about the imperiled present and future state of our culture and society. As Southern Baptist churchmen like you and as leaders in higher education, we have a long-standing appreciation for your work and witness at The Christian Index.
Second, to the general reader, please know that we agree with the editor’s effort to inform readers of teachings within Islam that are not fully known in the public square. We appreciate the editor’s attempt to raise questions requiring further exploration. Moreover, we recognize, support, and will heartily defend the right of the editor to express these views.
However, while we appreciate the intended tone of the editorial, we do disagree with the tenor for the four following reasons:
First, we believe, as Americans, that our Constitution guarantees the “first freedom” among all human freedoms, the freedom of religion with all of its benefits. For Christian Americans to question whether Muslim Americans qualify for religious freedom is essentially a question about whether all Americans are under the protection of the first and fourteenth amendments. We believe that all Americans, including Muslims, are granted, as an inalienable human right, the freedom of conscience to worship God as they believe best.
Second, we believe, as Baptists, that questioning whether Muslims deserve religious liberty is foreign to the historic Baptist understanding of biblical faith and practice. From the Reformation to the present, Baptists have been leading advocates for the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion for all citizens. In a supplement to this letter, we include quotes from the first continental Anabaptists and from the first English Baptists in order to demonstrate that religious liberty is foundational to our faith.
We note that Thomas Helwys (the English Baptist pastor to whom most scholars trace Baptist origins) specifically included “Turks” (i.e. Muslims) as possessing religious liberty from God. There are also quotes from leading American Baptists such as Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland, each of whom was instrumental in shaping American Baptist life as well as American political thought.
Third, we believe, as Southern Baptists, that universal religious liberty is a non-negotiable aspect of our denomination’s theology. In that light, we have included a portion of the Baptist Faith and Message in the second appendix below. We have also included one of our most recent denominational resolutions supporting religious liberty. The Southern Baptist Convention has adopted dozens of religious liberty resolutions since our inception in 1845, and this resolution, from 2011, specifically supports the freedom of Muslims to build mosques.
Fourth, we believe, as Evangelical Christians, that it is inappropriate to question whether Muslims should retain the right freely to practice their religion. We understand that granting such rights to some forms of Islam might one day lead to the threatening of Christians in our worship. However, we trust God will honor our faithfulness to proclaim and practice his Word for his glory and to the best of our ability. Moreover, we believe any attempt to inhibit religious liberty will only prove to be a hindrance to reaching these precious men and women, created in God’s image, with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. As those who believe in the exclusivity of Christ for salvation and who know that one cannot be coerced to believe and be saved, we want religious freedom for all human beings, while there is still time before the day of final judgment.
We ask our brother and we ask all Baptists, as well as other people interested in human freedom, to join us in preserving the first freedom, freedom of religion, and in rejecting any restriction of its universal application.
JASON G. DUESING
MALCOLM B. YARNELL III
Editors, First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty, Revised edition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016)
Examples of Baptist Advocacy of Universal Religious Liberty
“A Turk or a heretic is not convinced by our act, either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer.”
Balthasar Hubmaier, Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them (1524)
“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.”
Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612)
“It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.”
Roger Williams, Plea for Religious Liberty (1644)
“In all civil governments some are appointed to judge for others, and have power to compel others to submit to their judgment: but our Lord has most plainly forbidden us, either to assume or submit to any such thing in religion.”
Isaac Backus, Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty (1773)
“Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable (1791)
Our Southern Baptist Theological Commitment
“The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.”
Baptist Faith and Message (2000)
“Whereas, The rapidly changing religious diversity in the United States makes it important to reassert what Baptists have affirmed historically about complete religious liberty for all persons and a free church in a free state; and whereas, this conviction is grounded in the teaching of our Lord Jesus who declared that His Kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36), and therefore He has not authorized any earthly realm to advance His Kingdom by the power of the sword; and whereas, the transformation of the heart comes through the action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8), and thus cannot be legislated or forced; and whereas, efforts to confront spiritual matters with carnal, coercive means are both morally wrong and counter-productive (2 Corinthians 10:4; Ephesians 6:12); now, therefore, be it resolved, that the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 14-15, 2011, restate our long-standing view that religious liberty is an inalienable human right, rooted in the image of God and possessed by all human beings; and be it further resolved, that we affirm that this freedom entails the civil liberty to convert to another religion or to no religion, to seek to persuade others of the claims of one’s religion, and to worship without harassment or impediment from the state; and be it further resolved, that we oppose the imposition of any system of jurisprudence by which people of different faiths do not enjoy the same legal rights; and be it further resolved, that we deny that any government should use any coercive measure—including zoning laws or permits—to restrict religious speech or worship, based on the theological content of that speech or worship; and be it further resolved, that we call on the United States government to maintain complete religious liberty for all Americans, as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
On Religious Liberty in a Global Society, Resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention, June 14-15, 2011