Friday, July 13, 2007

Religious Liberty

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly in Washington, DC. Two highlights of this meeting of moderate, traditional Baptists were worth the trip by themselves: the joint worship on Friday night with participants from the American Baptist Churches USA and Progressive Baptists, and the Religious Liberty Council lunch, which featured a great speech from Randall Balmer. Here's his opening line:

“Dear Sir,” the letter began. “Start looking for a new job. The moral majority is going to put you and President Carter type of Christians out of a job.” This letter, written in August 1980 by a man from Dallas, was addressed to Jimmy Carter’s religious liaison, Robert Maddox, a Baptist. “Any staunch Christian would not support gays, would not support the ERA which contradicts God’s plan for women and would support voluntary prayer in the school. You guys are real bummers. You don’t even deserve to be called Baptists.”

Ballmer, a professor at Columbia and an ordained Episcopal priest, hammered today's most well-known Baptist leaders, particularly those within the Southern Baptist Convention, for their tossing out the window one of the top two or three historical Baptist distinctives--religious liberty. You can read the text of his entire speech (it's worth it!) here...

Probably my favorite lines came about the public posting of religious stuff, especially the 10 Commandments. He says:

Why the Decalogue, first of all? Why not the Sermon on the Mount, for those who want to make the argument that the United States is a “Christian nation”? The Sermon on the Mount, after all, is the highest expression of Christian ethics, although it does contain some of that unfortunate language about peacemakers and those who show mercy and turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies and storing treasures on earth. It also talks about the dangers of praying in public, after the manner of the hypocrites. Perhaps that’s why we prefer the retributive justice of the Ten Commandments over the ethic of love outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. Still, the soaring aspirations of the Sermon on the Mount surely would comport better with the American temperament than the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments.
But why not post the Decalogue in public places? Because, quite simply, it trivializes the faith and makes the Ten Commandments into a fetish. I was one of the expert witnesses in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, where Roy S. Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, plopped a two-and-one-half-ton granite monument emblazoned with the Decalogue into the lobby of the Judicial Building in Montgomery. Moore, who had run for office as the “Ten Commandments judge” and who claims to be a Baptist, repeatedly refused the requests of other religious traditions to have their sacred texts represented in the Judicial Building. And he also refused to acknowledge other precedents for American jurisprudence: the Code of Hammurabi, the Justinian Code, or the English Common Law tradition. He wanted only the Decalogue.

Religious liberty is important not because the religion diminishes the government, but because the religious principles get diminished when tied to governmental rule! My favorite Balmer zinger:

The lesson of Montgomery, Alabama, is that when religion looks for sanction from the state, religion is diminished. Faith is reduced to a fetish. Some of you may recall that after Judge Thompson ruled, properly, that “Roy’s Rock” violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and workers were preparing to remove it, one of the protesters screamed, “Get your hands off my God!”
Unless I’m mistaken, one of the Commandments etched into the side of that granite monument says something about graven images.

In our zeal for Christian morality, are we often putting aside our own Christian morality?

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