Rick Warren: 'Thank Baptists for Religious Liberty'

Mark D. Tooley
Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

Baptists have long been champions of religious freedom, recounted mega church pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore, in a panel moderated by Judge Ken Starr, president of Baptist affiliated Baylor University.

Last week's symposium on "Proselytism and Development" was hosted by Georgetown University's Berkley Center, whose Religious Freedom Project is directed by IRD board member Thomas Farr.

Early champions of religious liberty included Rhode Island colony founder Roger Williams and Baptist clergy like John Leland who influenced Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall, an IRD board member, once noted that ironically the most ardent advocates of religious liberty have been strict theological exclusivists, like Roger Williams, who barely thought anyone but himself was saved.

Russell Moore, in his panel with Warren and Starr, made a similar point. "We have a history of being irritants," he said. "Baptists weren't interested in being a mascot. Thomas Jefferson was not qualified to teach in any Baptist Sunday school." Yet Baptists encouraged and supported Jefferson's exertions for religious liberty.

If Caesar has the power to regulate religion then Caesar has power over the soul, Moore said of the Baptist perspective. Moore's Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has been prominent in defending domestic and international religious liberty.

Echoing similar sentiments, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in California that is one of America's largest churches, observed that countries with the greatest religious freedom have a Christian background.

"Thank the Baptists for religious liberty," urged Warren, who also participated in an earlier panel with a Jewish relief group chief. "What Jefferson meant by separation of church and state is the exact opposite of what is thought today," recalling Jefferson's famous letter to Danbury, Connecticut Baptists extolling a "wall of separation" between church and state, which Jefferson meant as protection for, not limits on, the church and faith.

Warren sardonically noted that the number of atheists and agnostics is quite small outside Europe and Manhattan. "The future of the world is not secularism but pluralism," he surmised, saying he has no objection to countries recognizing their respective religion's culture shaping role, whether with Buddha statues or Islamic iconography, so long as they affirm religious liberty in the present.

"Coercion is not conversion," Warren said. "God gave me the right to accept or reject Him so I must give others the same right. But I do believe in sharing in what I deeply hold." He noted religious freedom is America's first freedom, and the Constitution doesn't just guarantee freedom of worship a private exercise but full freedom of religion in every sphere.

Warren warned against double standards. "Proselytizing has become a negative word only used against Christians. But everybody does it. Everybody does it but it's bad only for [Christian] believers." He lamented the pervasive social attitude that, "If you don't agree with me you hate me or you're phobic. It's not hate speech to disagree with somebody."

Agreeing with Warren that Evangelicals seek "commonality" with others for the public good, Moore urged finding "Evangelicals who are the most genuinely Evangelical and not the ones who don't believe anything. Don't assume that because an Evangelical is wary [on some issues] or has strong positions that they won't cooperate" on other issues for the common good.

Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.

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