Russ Moore’s Soul Freedom: An Idea as Old as Baptists Themselves

John Leland, Baptist MinisterA video of Russel Moore’s response to a question at the SBC Convention has made the rounds today. It is a video of Moore’s response to a question from John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church, Blytheville, Arkansas. Generally questions from SBC messengers or members are not worthy of re tweeting or posting on some social video site, but Wofford’s question strikes a chord with many conservative Americans, and Moore’s answer (to which I agree) ruffles the feathers of many of the same. Watch the video below for Wofford’s question and Moore’s response:

One can understand Wofford’s question in light of the atrocities that have happened on American soil and abroad at the hands of Islamic extremists. But, denying Muslims in America the right to build mosques is to undercut the very religious liberty Baptist enjoy – the very religious liberty every religion in America enjoys. The government is to extend to every individual right of “soul freedom” – the right to choose to worship their religion without interference from the government. That is, the United States government should not dictate who is able to build a house of worship and who is not. The government should not dictate who can worship their religion and who cannot. Religious liberty is extended to every individual and guarantees that the government will not interfere.

The idea of “soul freedom” is not unique to Moore, nor is it an idea that has been birthed by the recent clash with militant Islam. Rather, it’s an idea that has been around as long as Baptists have been around.

John Leland (1754-1841) was a Baptist minister in early America, having served churches in Virginia and Massachusetts. What Leland is perhaps most known for is his fight for religious liberty. Robert G. Torbet, in his A History of the Baptists, says Leland was “leading Baptist spokesman in behalf of religious freedom.”[1]  Leland states in his An Address Delivered at Westfield, March 4, 1833, that “next to the salvation of souls, the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention, more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor.”

Leland’s view on religious liberty directly flows from how he understood the relationship between church and state. Leland believed that “government has no more to do with religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.”[2]  So strongly did he believe in a strict separation of Church and State, that any idea of a Christian commonwealth (i.e. State) “should be exploded.”[3] 

Government, when rightly formed, embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, within its fostering arms – prescribes no creed of faith for either of them – proscribes none of them for being heretics, promotes the man of talents and integrity, without inquiring after his religion – impartially protects all of them – punishes the man who works ill to his neighbor, let his faith and motives be what they may.[4] 

Note again: “Government, when rightly formed, embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans [i.e. Muslims] and Christians, within its fostering arms.” Baptists, for over 200 years, have championed religious freedom not just for Baptists alone, but also for Muslims, that they too may have the liberty to practice their religion (even build their own mosques) in America.   All civil laws should recognize all individuals of all religious backgrounds as citizens and should protect their rights.[6] 

Baptists, and all other faiths, in America are in debt to Leland and his tireless work (along with other Baptists like Isaac Backus) to ensure religious liberty is extended to all religions in America.  May we as Southern Baptists today continue to champion religious liberty for all – even to Muslims who are here on our soil.

Post Script: I encourage you to read Russ Moore’s post dated June 8, 2016, titled “Is Religious Freedom for Non-Christians Too?” Moore provides excellent insight into a difficult issue, but one that we must face in today’s turbulent times. Though we as Christians are rightly troubled and angered by the actions of Muslim extremists, we live in a country where one religion is not to be favored over another by the state. The federal government is not to endorse one religion over all others; in particular, our government is not a Christian government. We are not in a Christian nation. Rather, we live in a nation where religious freedom is extended to all – even though with whom we are at odds.

_____________________


                [1] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptist (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 241.

                [2] Isaac Backus, A Fish Caught In His Own Net, in Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism [Works], ed. William G. McLoughlin (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1768; reprint, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968), 190-1.

                [3] John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland [Works], ed. Miss L. F. Greene (New London: 1791; reprint, New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 184.

 

                [4] Leland, The Virginia Chronicle, Works, 107.

 

                [5] Leland, Short Essays on Government, Works, 476.

                [6] Leland, Letter to the Rev. O. B. Brown, Works, 608-10.

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