An Open Letter for Preserving the First Freedom of Universal Religious Liberty

Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by Jason Duesing, provost at Midwestern Seminary; Thomas White, president of Cedarville University; and Malcolm Yarnell, professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Seminary.

We are compelled by conscience to respond publicly to a June 6 public editorial penned by a revered Southern Baptist newspaper editor (Gerald Harris, The Christian Index, link to editorial: http://bit.ly/1OsJwNs). 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 (link: http://bit.ly/1Uy5MpE), 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 (see link: http://bit.ly/1Uy5MpE). 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. 

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