If you live near a colonial cemetery, that whirring sound you've been hearing all week probably owes to my Baptist forebears spinning in their graves at the news that one of our modern-day brethren has sold the denomination's religious-liberty birthright for a mess of political pottage.
Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, announced Jan. 21 that he was pulling out of a panel of religious leaders advocating for the religious-liberty rights of Muslims.
The Interfaith Coalition on Mosques was convened by the Anti-Defamation League last fall after several simmering local controversies over construction of mosques boiled over into full-scale national rhetorical warfare. Some opponents of an Islamic cultural center slated for a site a few blocks from Ground Zero echoed arguments made by Islamophobes who have long been fighting mosque-construction projects in places as diverse as Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and Temecula, Calif.
The coalition -- comprising a broad array of Jewish and Muslim leaders alongside Christians of mainline Protestant, evangelical and Catholic varieties -- are charged with defending the clear rights of Muslims to build houses of worship.
The arguments raised by opponents of these mosque projects don't pass the most basic constitutional sniff test. The First Amendment makes crystal clear that even the most unpopular religious group has the right to build a house of worship anywhere another religious group is allowed to erect one. (For instance, the mosque in Murfreesboro would be located next to a Baptist church; sadly, the church's pastor has apparently forgotten Jesus' Great Commandment and is opposing his neighbors' plans.)
Islamophobes have responded by arguing that Islam doesn't qualify as a "religion" under the First Amendment but is, rather, a political system entirely opposed to our constitutional values. Never mind that, in America's history, other unpopular religious minorities have faced almost identical arguments when they first came to our shores (most notably Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
Land, to his credit, has opposed this sort of bigotry in the past. He even spoke out publicly in favor of the Murfreesboro mosque's right to build (Land's organization is based in Nashville, near Murfreesboro).
But apparently he's not willing to be a prophet to his own people. In a letter to ADL leaders explaining his decision to withdraw from the coalition, Land said, "While many Southern Baptists share my deep commitment to religious freedom and the right of Muslims to have places of worship, they also feel that a Southern Baptist denominational leader filing suit to allow individual mosques to be built is 'a bridge too far,'" according an ERLC press release.
The release went on to quote Land saying that "sometimes it is difficult to balance" the prophetic and representative aspects of his role as the chief public-policy spokesperson for the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Land said that many unnamed Southern Baptists had complained about his participation in the coalition, and that, while they expressed support for religious liberty for all, they drew the line at "denominational leaders filing suit in court to protect those rights when Muslims are the aggrieved party."
Of course, as Land knows, if members of popular or favored religious groups don't defend the rights of unpopular religious minorities in legislatures and courts of law, then eventually everybody's religious freedom will be in jeopardy. Baptists in the soon-to-be United States, after all, were once a minority as unpopular among the established Anglican and Congregational colonial regimes as Muslims are among Southern Baptists today.
It's no coincidence that the founder of the first Baptist church in America, Roger Williams, was also the founder of the first colony to embrace religious freedom for all, Rhode Island. And it's also no coincidence that colonial Baptists -- who were beaten, fined and jailed for the crime of practicing their faith in Massachusetts, Virginia and elsewhere -- played an integral role in ensuring that the Constitution explicitly protected religious freedom for all.
Worst of all, Land told the Associated Press that, while he believed the Southern Baptists who opposed his work with the coalition were doing so on the basis of a misperception, it was a misperception so widespread that he had to respect it.
Thanks to that attitude, another Baptist must be flipping in his casket right along with Roger Williams et al.
Foy Valentine, who died in 2006, served as head of the predecessor agency to Land's (then known as the SBC Christian Life Commission) in the 1960s. He angered many a Southern Baptist with his support for desegregation and civil-rights legislation.
But, unlike Land, Valentine did not bow to widespread misperceptions in the denomination -- in this case, the misperception that advances for African Americans would mean the ruination of society. Instead, he fearlessly challenged them, risking his own career and even safety.
Would that Richard Land were more like Valentine, Williams and the other true Baptists who went before him. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.
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