Pastor offers 'gentle rebuke' for Baptist editor who wrote religious liberty is not for Muslims

by Gregory Tomlin, |
REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

FARMERSVILLE, Texas (Christian Examiner) – A Southern Baptist pastor and seminary trustee is asking the editor of America's oldest religious newspaper to retract an editorial in which he claimed Muslims are not deserving of the same religious liberty afforded to others under the U.S. Constitution.

Gerald Harris, editor of Georgia's Christian Index, wrote in his editorial June 6 of the various Islamist movements in Iran, Palestine and Iraq, and claimed Islam "may be more of a geo-political movement than a religion."

"So, do Southern Baptists entities need to come to the defense of a geo-political movement that has basically set itself against Western Civilization? Even if Islam is a religion must we commit ourselves to fight for the religious freedom of a movement that aggressively militates against other religions?"

Even if Islam is a religion must we commit ourselves to fight for the religious freedom of a movement that aggressively militates against other religions? ... In essence they want to use our democracy to establish their theocracy (with Allah as supreme). Their goal politically is to destroy the Constitution with its embedded freedom and democracy and replace it with Sharia Law.

Harris, who offered no distinction between moderate Muslims and the radical Islamist movements plaguing the world and perpetrating Christian genocide in Syria and elsewhere, said freedom of religion for Muslims "means allowing them the right to establish Islam as the state religion, subjugating infidels, even murdering those who are critics of Islam and those who oppose their brutal religion. In essence they want to use our democracy to establish their theocracy (with Allah as supreme). Their goal politically is to destroy the Constitution with its embedded freedom and democracy and replace it with Sharia Law."

He also criticized Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, for spending his "professional capital" in defense of Muslims who wanted to build a mosque in New Jersey, but not on legislation (HB 757) in Georgia to protect religious liberty where it intersects with same-sex marriage.

Harris's editorial has prompted a gentle rebuke from Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, and a trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Barber, who holds a Ph.D. in church history, wrote at SBC Today that Harris's editorial is, "as far as I can tell, unprecedented in Baptist history."

"For such a well-known and prominent Baptist whose résumé consists exclusively of Baptist educational institutions and employment by Baptist churches and causes and who leads such an historic Baptist publication to author an editorial calling for the government to curtail religious liberty is breathtaking," Barber wrote.

Barber added that Baptists have argued for religious liberty "explicitly for Muslims" as far back as the tradition reaches. That is why Harris's stance is "tectonic," and could only be paralleled by an event such as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler arguing against baptism by immersion in an official school publication, or Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson arguing against the necessity of personal conversion. Barber also wrote no Baptist leader in 500 years has argued against religious liberty universally applied.

"And now we can't say that ever again," Barber wrote.

Barber addressed Harris's arguments that Islam seeks to establish political hegemony over the world and impose its views on others. He acknowledged that as truth, but claimed Islam is not the first political (or religious) entity in the world to ever attempt that. In fact, Barber argued that state churches led by monarchs, like the Anglican Church in England that sought to control American Colonial religion, enforced conformity and executed dissenters just as Muslims execute "infidels."

"Ask William Tyndale. Ask Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer. Watch the Church of England carry to the stake the broken body of Anne Askew and set her afire, then tell me that Islam is unique among the religions. The count of atrocities committed under statutes like the Clarendon Code is legion," Barber wrote.

He pointed to the Roman Catholic Church which killed people like Michael and Margaretha Sattler, the Zwinglians who killed the Anabaptist Felix Manz, and the Massachusetts Congregationalists who beat Obadiah Holmes.

Barber also cited the worship of the Japanese emperor during World War II as "the manifestation of god," a belief that propelled Japanese soldiers forward to rape and pillage their way through the cultures of those they regarded as inferior peoples.

"For whatever it is worth, I'd offer my opinion that a system of belief in which the ruler of the state is considered to be the incarnate manifestation of god would qualify as perhaps a wee bit geo-political. If they further believe that god has granted that head of state the right to rule the entire world, I'd count them as a threat to Western civilization. If they feel that these beliefs justify them in committing atrocities throughout the Pacific Rim, then I'd be willing to categorize them as violent and terroristic," Barber wrote.

Finally, Barber pointed to the experience of the early church where believers were forced to choose between worshiping the Roman emperor or remaining faithful to Christ. Even in the middle of an administration that used "violence in the furtherance of a geo-politically bent religious system," Christians remained faithful to the idea that truth could overcome any political power that opposed it.

Barber concluded by claiming Harris's main point in his editorial – that "Baptists live in a new era of the rising tide of Islam" – is illegitimate.

"When did Islam acquire its geo-political nature? In the seventh century A.D. By the eighth century A.D., Charles Martel and other Christians are battling militant Islam on the fields of Europe. So, the geo-political and territorially aggressive nature of Islam is a reality that we've known about for nearly 1,300 years," Barber wrote.

"That means that the nature of Islam is not some new reality to which we must adjust our idea of religious liberty. To the contrary, Baptists have known about the nature of Islam throughout the entire development of our understanding of religious liberty."

In fact, Islam is not even the world's fastest-growing religion, he wrote. Christianity is and Muslims are rapidly coming to faith in Christ across the Middle East.

"The most powerful nation in the world has universal religious liberty. The most rapidly growing religion in the world is Evangelical Christianity—the faith that gave the world universal religious liberty and has been its staunchest ongoing defender. You'd think that those two facts would instill a little pragmatic confidence in the idea of universal religious liberty," Barber wrote.

And if Muslims, or Satanists or witches should conduct terrorist operations, call for jihad or stoke insurrection, Barber wrote that he believes the government is capable of policing those criminal acts. No potential crime, he wrote, is worth surrendering the inalienable right to one's personal religious beliefs and actions outside of the purview of government or any other religious authority.