What does “freedom of religion” mean in America? Most of us would, I assume, understand the phrase to mean that we are free to practice our religion without any interference from the state. That’s a good definition and one that safeguards the practices and beliefs of our religion from the control, restriction, and interference of the government. Yet, for some it is applicable only for Christians. All other religions ought to be controlled, monitored, and limited. Dr. Russell Moore does not share that conviction. Russ Moore is serving all of us by holding firmly his Evangelical convictions and yet still building bridges across religious divides.
Moore serves as President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the Southern Baptist Convention. The post has provided him some unique opportunities, and some unique challenges. As president of this committee he has defended and fought for many of the things his constituents would expect. He has advocated for the unborn and argued against the pro-abortion agenda. He has defended the sanctity of marriage and argued against gay marriage. He has advocated for religious liberty and the free exercise of religion. On this last point, however, he has gained no small amount of criticism from some. His position to defend religious liberty for all has garnered him some disdain among his constituents, particularly as it applies to religious liberty for practicing Muslims in America.
The Muslim people may be one of the most misunderstood and feared groups in America. The assumption made by many is that all Muslims are terrorists and are, therefore, a threat to our way of life and our safety as citizens. Fear has turned to suspicion, suspicion to hatred, and hatred to aggression. In whole parts of our country Islamic men and women are threatened, harassed, attacked, and socially ostracized. Even President-Elect Donald Trump has perpetuated the fear with many of his campaign remarks and promises. Russ Moore, no fan of Trump, has not fallen in line with the expected Conservative stance.
In May of 2016 the ERLC filed an amicus brief on behalf of a Muslim group that wanted to build a mosque in New Jersey. The decision received a host of criticism and calls for dramatic action be taken against the ERLC by the larger SBC body. One proposed motion called for Moore immediate termination. Messenger, John Wofford, representing the motion, stated:
I move that all Southern Baptist officials or officers who support the rights of Muslims to build Islamic mosques in the United States be immediately removed from their positions within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Moore defended the decision then and continues to defend it (and similar decisions) now. He argued at that meeting that allowing the government to decide against one religion offered no protection for Baptists in the future. In his own words:
Brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says ‘we can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship;’ then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.
As Moore looks out at our cultural landscape he recognizes the a threat to one religion is a threat to all religions. But there is more to his argument than mere pragmatism and self-protection. He sees freedom of religion as “a natural and inalienable right granted by God” (“Is Religious Freedom For Non-Christians Too”?). Moore believes that Muslims have the same rights that Christians do to practice their religion peaceably and without interference from the state. Yet, he never departs from the firm conviction that Evangelical Christianity is truth.
Moore’s desire to care for his Muslim neighbor, and to invite us all to do the same, is not a departure from his theological convictions. He never suggests that there are “multiple pathways to God.” He does not abandon Biblical truth in order to build bridges. Rather, it is his strong commitment to the Scriptures that drives his activity. He writes:
When we say – as Baptists and many other Christians always have – that freedom of religion applies to all people, whether Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative. We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying that religion should be free from state control because we believe that every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.
We are accountable to God for our religious convictions, not to the state, says Moore. It’s the difference between conformity, pretend-Christianity, and the form of godliness, Moore says, and true Christian conversion. We may force people to conform to our expectations and religious standards, but that will not draw them to Christ. Freedom of religion allows them to be wrong, yes, but it allows them also to come to faith in true repentance and belief. That is right.
Moore deserves our appreciation, prayer, and support. He has been under attack not just for this issue but for countless others. He has been attacked for his opposition to President-Elect Donald Trump, for his commitment to racial reconciliation, and for his unwillingness to partner with the likes of pseudo-Christian political groups in Washington. Yet what he does is continue to build bridges that may yet draw people to see Christ in truth. Moore is bridge-builder with strong Evangelical commitments and we ought to thank God for his work.