By John D. Pierce, Executive Editor, Nurturing Faith Journal
Many persons of a variety of religious backgrounds — including this Baptist editor — are alarmed by Georgia Baptist editor Gerald Harris’ insinuation that America’s guarantee of religious freedom should be limited for Muslims.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution political columnist Jim Galloway today pointed to Harris’ June 6 editorial in The Christian Index, a historic and now online-only publication of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board (formerly the Georgia Baptist Convention). The editorial is titled “Do Muslims really qualify for religious liberty benefits?”
Harris argues “that Islam may be more of a geopolitical movement than a religion.” To suggest such, gives Harris a case for opposing religious liberty for those who follow Islam — since it’s not primarily a religion anyway.
So who gets to decide what religions are real enough to deserve protection by the First Amendment?
In Colonial America, Baptists were a small and highly suspect group that faced persecution for practicing their strange faith. Quakers, Jews, Mormons and others encountered the dangerous practice of selective religious freedom as well.
Ironically, Baptists like John Leland and Roger Williams played key roles in opposing such discrimination and ensuring that full religious liberty would be embedded in the governing documents of this nation. Yet many Baptists today, like Harris, have grown comfortable with the political clout that comes from the cultural dominance that is surely slipping away.
Harris’ sand-built case falls apart on his basic claim that Islam is more political than religious in nature.
This comes from one of the Georgia Baptist leaders who spent enormous time and energy seeking state legislation recently that would have legally permitted discrimination against gay and lesbian persons. Fortunately, a wise Baptist governor vetoed the selectively vindictive bill.
If political activity disqualifies a particular religious perspective from its guaranteed rights then Christian fundamentalism should be the first to go.
It is helpful to understand that those like Harris — who’ve long pined for the highly romanticized good ol’ days despite the associated trail of discrimination — function from a painful perspective of loss.
For decades, denominational leaders bragged about the high percentage of Baptists among the state’s population. Now they are watching their castle collapse.
Their fear is not unfounded. The cultural dominance that conservative Christians have long enjoyed in places like Georgia is being strongly impacted by the growing diversity in their midst.
Frankly, it scares some Christians to the point they will oppose basic equality for those deemed as threats to their public influence and familiar ways.
Whether opposing equality for persons based on race, gender or sexual orientation or identity, Christian fundamentalists have a solid record of landing on the wrong side of equal rights and social change in recent decades. So it is not surprising that those, like Harris, would want to exclude Islam from the full religious freedom that Americans are granted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
However, Christian fundamentalists who hold such a perspective are wrong on this issue as well. Their faulty, fear-based argument will not be bought by most Americans and certainly not by anyone with a working knowledge of American history and constitutional law.
Such an offensive attack on good Americans of the Islamic faith does not represent many, many Christians and Georgians — including this Baptist editor.
-John D. Pierce is executive editor of Nurturing Faith Journal & Bible Studies (formerly Baptists Today) and publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources based in Macon, Ga. He assumed the position 16 years ago coming from The Christian Index in Atlanta where he served as managing editor.