Recently, there has been a great deal of dialogue about whether or not Baptists should support religious liberty for other religious groups in America, including supporting the right of these groups to construct houses of worship without undue or extraordinary restrictions. Baptists have historically defended religious liberty for all, believing that if religious liberty is not for all, then it will eventually be for none. Baptists have often known what it means to be those who are religiously oppressed by the state.
The Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention is quite clear on the matter of Religious Liberty (Article 17, emphasis added):
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.
Genesis 1:27; 2:7; Matthew 6:6-7,24; 16:26; 22:21; John 8:36; Acts 4:19-20; Romans 6:1-2; 13:1-7; Galatians 5:1,13; Philippians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; James 4:12; 1 Peter 2:12-17; 3:11-17; 4:12-19.
One recent objection to the historic Baptist position is to suggest that Islam is not a religion at all but rather a geo-political movement that seeks to replace all other values and faith with Islamic law. In response to this claim, I will simply point you to historian and pastor Bart Barber’s excellent piece that dismantles the notion that Islam is not a religion as “poppycock”. In short, almost everyone in history who has desired to trample over the religious liberty of others has relied upon arguments that deny the legitimacy of the religion in question (such reasoning has also historically been used against Christians).
Another argument some use against religious liberty for Muslims (and others) in America is that if we as Christians defend the rights of people to construct places of false worship, we are aiding them on a path to hell. Such arguments assert that they want no part in supporting a false religion even if it is in the name of religious freedom. That kind of argument is in opposition to The Baptist Faith and Message and the entire history of Baptist thought on the relationship of religion and the state. If one were to give a label to such a view, it would fall under the category of some sort of Christian theonomy.
Those who are making this kind of argument are correct in their theological exclusivism regarding soteriology, believing that there is no salvation outside of conscious faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Those of us who hold this biblical view believe that all who are outside of Christ are lost and will face eternal judgement if they die in that condition. This point is not up for debate for me, it is a Christian non-negotiable.
However, if we believe that allowing the construction of mosques leads people to hell is sufficient justification to deny religious liberty, why would we stop with mosques? Wouldn’t we also oppose synagogues and any place of worship that is not exclusively and faithfully Christian? Aren’t all religious paths outside of Christ houses of false worship that lead to hell and not heaven? So do those Christians who argue in this way want us to urge American governmental leaders not to allow Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhs, Mormons, Jewish, Taoist, and other places of worship to be built as well?
The truth is that evangelism is aided and not threatened by defending religious liberty for all in our nation. This discussion of Muslims and religious liberty is not a merely theoretical one for me. The church I pastor, Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, has an aggressive ministry to international students in the Lexington metro area. Often, we have Muslims (and other people from a variety of religious backgrounds) in our worship services. Ashland members cultivate friendships that we hope and pray will ultimately lead to their friend’s faith in Christ.
If our community was hostile to their presence and did not allow their places of worship, our church members could not build relationships with them for the sake of the gospel. This is how the Great Commission works. You must have relationships with unbelievers to lead them to Christ. We want them in our community and neighborhoods. If we tell other religious groups that we do not want them in our community, then we really are speeding them down a highway to hell!
The government does not have a gospel mission; the church does. Christians should defend the religious liberty of other faiths with as much zeal as they defend their own. We Christians follow the one who is “the truth” (John 14:6), and we have no reason to be intimidated by the beliefs of others because we know the power of the gospel to save. The answer to the false religion of Islam (and other groups) is not governmental regulation; rather, it is the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.