The Christian Index is just six years shy of its bicentennial—the oldest religious newspaper in the Western Hemisphere, I believe. Dr. Gerald Harris has been the editor of this newspaper since 2003 and has steered the paper through an era that has perhaps offered more challenges to The Christian Index (by virtue of what the Internet has done to print publications) than any epoch since what the Index‘s readers would doubtless have called “The War of Northern Aggression.” That he has done so successfully earns him a prominent place in the paper’s storied history. For these reasons, I want to try to live out something of the spirit of 1 Timothy 5:1, a sentiment of scripture woefully underrepresented in blogging—to my shame, far too often in my own efforts.
As one who aspires to be a Baptist historian, I want to point out that Dr. Harris’s June 6 editorial against universal religious liberty is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented in Baptist history. For such a well known and prominent Baptist whose résumé consists exclusively of Baptist educational institutions and employment by Baptist churches and causes and who leads such an historic Baptist publication to author an editorial calling for the government to curtail religious liberty is breathtaking.
Baptists have been arguing for religious liberty for everyone—hey, let’s make this specific, shall we?—Baptists have been arguing for religious liberty EXPLICITLY FOR MUSLIMS for so long that the tradition reaches back beyond the point where you and I would necessarily agree that there even WERE Baptists to argue for religious liberty (if you’re one of those people with a truncated Baptist history). Harris’s argument against religious liberty is eerily similar to Martin Bucer’s line of argumentation against Pilgram Marpeck (a succinct summary of that conversation appears in Malcolm Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine). Again, for the nation’s oldest Baptist newspaper to take up the arguments of the Lutheran against the Anabaptist on questions of religious liberty is bewildering.
Harris’s article is tectonic. What would count as a parallel event? If Dr. Albert Mohler in an official publication of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary were to pen a screed against immersion, that would be a parallel event. If Dr. Paige Patterson in an official publication of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were to fire a broadside against the idea of conversion, that would be a parallel event. It takes a lot of research to declare a negative, and that’s research that I haven’t completely done, but at this point, I don’t think that any moment in the past five centuries features any prominent Baptist leader’s arguing against universal religious liberty.
And now we can’t say that ever again.
Considering the Substance of Dr. Harris’s Proposal
Although the support of history should count for something, I don’t want to be guilty of interacting with Harris’s article at no deeper a level than “but we’ve never done it that way before.” Let us consider the points that Harris has made and weigh them against the counterpoints that Baptist champions of religious liberty since Thomas Helwys have been making.
Harris argues that Islam is different from other religions because Islam is violent and includes a distinctive view of the political order.
I concur that Islam has a long history of violence and a commitment to theocracy that extends all the way back to Mohammed. That’s right: On all these points, I agree with Dr. Harris. Nevertheless, we disagree at two points. First, these aspects of Islam do not actually make it unique. Far from it! Furthermore, all of these attributes of Islam have been true for the entire history of Islam. In other words, they have been true throughout the entire history of Baptist advocacy for universal religious liberty.
What other religions have amounted to violent geo-political movements?
Every State Church in History: Consider, for example, the Anglican Church. Was the Anglican Church a geo-political movement? Well, the name of “The Church of England” gives us a bit of a hint. To this very day the head of the Church of England is the English monarch: Queen Elizabeth. The birth of the Church of England came not through a church-planting movement or through a revival but through an act of parliament (there’s another hint that the nature of this thing just MIGHT have a wee touch of geo-politics in it). The Act of Supremacy of 1534 arose out of factors just as political as religious in nature—some would say MORE political than religious. As a part of English colonialism the Church of England was determined to spread its hegemony throughout the world.
Well, yeah, Barber, but these are polite Brits rather than terroristic Iranians, right? I mean, you have to admit that Anglicans aren’t violent and terroristic.
Oh, how quickly we forget.
Yes, ISIS beheads people. But given the choice, I’d actually PREFER that to what the Church of England did to dissenters. Being burned at the stake = an unpleasant day. Was the Church of England violent? Terroristic? Ask William Tyndale. Ask Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer. Watch the Church of England carry to the stake the broken body of Anne Askew and set her afire, then tell me that Islam is unique among the religions. The count of atrocities committed under statutes like the Clarendon Code is legion.
And if we were to move beyond the Church of England to consider the Roman Catholic Church, what would we find then? What did they do to Michael and Margaretha Sattler? How about the Zwinglians? You’ll find the waters of the Limmat River in the lungs of Felix Manz and the fingerprints of Ulrich Zwingli on his arms. Then there’s the fate of Obadiah Holmes under the Massachusetts Congregationalists.
Yeah, but were these churches pledged to the destruction of America? You know, don’t you, that the Church of England wasn’t exactly…uh…neutral during the American Revolution? The Church of England was pledged to the destruction of America before America was even established. To attend the local parish of the Church of England meant having to ask that God “keep and strengthen in the true worshipping of thee, in righteousness and holiness of life, thy servant GEORGE, our most gracious King and Governor.” The gravest threat any religion ever posed to the United States of America was the threat posed by the Church of England. That’s just indisputable, statistically measurable, historical fact.
Japanese Emperor Worship: It’s somewhat ironic that Harris published his editorial on June 6, the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of World War II. In that war our nation faced an enemy able to motivate kamikaze warriors to fly airplanes into ships. Imperial Japan was committed to the defeat of the United States of America and employed a terroristic campaign of brutality that your grandparents knew full well. My grandfather-in-law witnessed firsthand the Palawan Massacre, a horrific war crime in a war containing so many horrific Japanese war crimes that it didn’t even make this select list of top atrocities.
Japanese soldiers committing such atrocities were part of a system that issued orders in this form: “akitsu mikami to ame no shita shirasu yamato no sumera mikoto no ?mikotorama” (“This is the mandate of the Emperor of Japan who rules the world as the manifestation of god”). For whatever it is worth, I’d offer my opinion that a system of belief in which the ruler of the state is considered to be the incarnate manifestation of god would qualify as perhaps a wee bit geo-political. If they further believe that god has granted that head of state the right to rule the entire world, I’d count them as a threat to Western civilization. If they feel that these beliefs justify them in committing atrocities throughout the Pacific Rim, then I’d be willing to categorize them as violent and terroristic.
Roman Emperor Worship: It’s worth mentioning that the New Testament was written by citizens of an empire which employed violence in the furtherance of a geo-politically bent religious system. And yet the New Testament clearly teaches religious liberty.
Even I, whose picture appears in the dictionary under “TL;DR”, tire of making the list. Permit me to offer my conclusion, which I’ll be happy to defend in the comments with even more evidence if required to do so: Dr. Harris’s theory of religious liberty (that it ought only to pertain to religions that do not delve into geo-politics and are not violent) is a theory under which universal religious liberty has never been possible.
And yet, facing precisely the same realities, Baptists have always argued in favor of universal religious liberty. When did Islam acquire its geo-political nature? In the seventh century A.D. By the eighth century A.D., Charles Martel and other Christians are battling militant Islam on the fields of Europe. So, the geo-political and territorially aggressive nature of Islam is a reality that we’ve known about for nearly 1,300 years.
That means that the nature of Islam is not some new reality to which we must adjust our idea of religious liberty. To the contrary, Baptists have known about the nature of Islam throughout the entire development of our understand of religious liberty. The most naïve line of Harris’s editorial is
Baptists live in a new era of the rising tide of Islam.
Thirty seconds of reflection upon a fifth-grade history book would be enough to disprove that line, and another thirty seconds reading Baptist Press should knock it out completely. For one thing, there’s nothing new about our experience. For another, the tide of Islam actually isn’t rising. Christianity is the world’s fastest-growing religion, and Muslims are converting to Christianity in record numbers. The most powerful nation in the world has universal religious liberty. The most rapidly growing religion in the world is Evangelical Christianity—the faith that gave the world universal religious liberty and has been its staunchest ongoing defender. You’d think that those two facts would instill a little pragmatic confidence in the idea of universal religious liberty.
As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I want to appeal to Dr. Gerald Harris as a father rather than rebuking him sharply. Dr. Harris, please reconsider your essay. Religious liberty has worked better than any other arrangement. It has worked better for the state, giving rise to the strongest nations in the history of the world. It has worked better for the churches: Do we really envy the spiritual state of the German Lutherans, French Catholics, and Australian Anglicans? Like every principle taught in the Word of God, it hasn’t been tried and found wanting, so let’s not leave it untried because it is difficult or frightening (HT: G. K. Chesterton).
If and when mosques, temples, churches, or covens actually foment insurrection, breed terrorism, or call for jihad, our government can police those bad actions. I’m not arguing for a suspension of the rule of law when a person enters a house of worship. We can enforce the law and maintain our national security without having a “pre crime” unit.
Finally, might I suggest that religious liberty is not something to be earned? Would you please contemplate not only the grace of God but also the words of the Declaration of Independence? There are rights that we consider to be inalienable. These are rights for which no government gets to decide whether we “qualify” or not. These are rights that we do not gain because we deserve them or earn them. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” Unalienable. Rights given to all people by God, not distributed as governmental largesse. Rights that people have by virtue of being people unless and until their individual actions justify depriving them of those rights by means of a fair and impartial system of justice. John Leland argued that the right of religious conscience is among those inalienable rights (Leland felt compelled not only to elaborate upon Jefferson’s list but also to correct his vocabulary). Do you, Dr. Harris, really disagree with John Leland at this point (who explicitly mentioned Muslims as possessing this inalienable right, too)?
God has entrusted you with a great responsibility, Dr. Harris. So have Georgia Baptists. Listen to more voices than that of Jody Hice. Take a week and pore over the work of George W. Truett, E.Y. Mullins, John Leland, Isaac Backus, Roger Williams, Thomas Helwys, Pilgram Marpeck, and dozens of lesser-known Baptists who have come before you. After you have done so, please consider using your influence responsibly and printing a retraction of your editorial.