Bart Barber has only been the Southern Baptist Convention president for a few weeks, but already he has seen and commented on the historic Supreme Court ruling about abortion and fielded various questions about SBC life. An important topic he recently took on, especially in light of controversies among Southern Baptists, was religious liberty. Below, he expands on this important freedom, explaining why it’s so important to Baptists, how we can grow in our understanding of it, and why Christians should be encouraged.
Lindsay Nicolet: Will you explain what religious liberty is? And why is it a Baptist distinctive?
Bart Barber: A person enjoys religious liberty if he may change his religious beliefs or religious affiliation without changing his relationship with the governing authorities over him. Religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive for several reasons:
First, together with the earliest Anabaptists, the 17th-century Baptists and their successors found religious liberty in the text of the Bible, demonstrating it from passages like the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and Jesus’ statement that his kingdom is not of this world.
Second, Baptists have found religious liberty to be a correlate of our basic evangelical belief in conversionism—the idea that no one can enter the kingdom of God except by way of voluntary, uncoerced conversion suggests that there is no value in having the state attempt to coerce religious affiliation.
Third, the beleaguered Baptists of the 1600s and 1700s were well acquainted with the fact that governments empowered to protect or privilege Christianity always wind up being governments who persecute true Christians.
Fourth, historically speaking, we find religious liberty affirmed throughout the various Baptist confessions of faith that our family of churches has drafted from time to time down through the centuries.
LN: There has been outrage in recent years among Southern Baptists because of advocacy work on behalf of people of other faiths. Can you explain why this outrage is unnecessary?
BB: Supreme Court cases are not about the individuals involved; they are about the ideas involved. Pro-life Americans rejoice over the recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization even if they have never lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and have never known anyone who lived there. The importance of the case is found not in the individual organizations involved but in the fact that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey are no longer the law of the land. I am thankful that people who had no connection to Jackson submitted amici curiae briefs to help bring about the end of the Roe/Casey regime.
The same thing is true about religious liberty cases. Do you cherish the right to go door-to-door to share the gospel? That idea was secured in American law because of a case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Were you thankful when the Supreme Court ruled in Tandon v. Newsom to permit California churches to gather for indoor worship? Look at the cases that the court cited as their reasoning behind that ruling. They include everything across the spectrum from Roman Catholics to practitioners of the voodoo-like religion Santeria. To a California church who is frustrated because restaurants and movie theaters are open but the state keeps their buildings padlocked, they don’t care that the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah case involved pagan chicken sacrifices; they just care that the ideas of religious liberty won the day back then and that the success of those ideas means that they get to gather for church.
LN: How can Southern Baptists grow in their understanding of religious liberty? What are some core texts or resources that you think Baptists could read to gain a better understanding of religious liberty?
BB: Roger Williams’ The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution is just what we need today, but it unfortunately is quite a difficult book to read. I say that it is just what we need because it lays out the biblical case for religious liberty, and in my experience, we have more people who know the philosophical theory of religious liberty and the historical tradition of Baptist belief in religious liberty than we have people who understand the case that early American Baptists like Williams made from the Bible for religious liberty.
A more recent and more accessible book-sized work I would recommend would be The First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty by Duesing, White, and Yarnell. The recent volume Islam and North America: Loving Our Muslim Neighbors by Micah Fries and Keith Whitfield contains a chapter I contributed on the question of religious liberty.
For shorter resources, the ERLC’s website contains a number of very helpful articles addressing various aspects of religious liberty.
LN: As we live and witness in an increasingly pluralistic society, why can we be joyful and filled with peace instead of fearful and angry?
BB: Apart from coercion and without any help from the state, people are accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has overcome the world. He is preparing us a place. We are the spiritual descendants of martyrs, and look how they have overcome those who went to war against them! Have faith that, as he did with Gideon’s army, God will have his victory in ways that make it absolutely clear that he had no need of governments or the schemes of men.
LN: Have Baptists understood religious liberty to be a right which has no limits? If there are limits, what are they?
BB: Roger Williams used the image of Moses holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments as an illustration of this. For the “first table of the law,” which addressed questions about people’s relationships with God, the government has no authority to govern. For the “second table of the law,” which addressed questions about people’s relationships with one another, Williams believed that the government does have the authority to govern. Sharing the gospel in Africa, I’ve met people who have performed religious rituals involving human sacrifice. Is that a religious practice? To be sure, it is. But it involves taking the life of another person. Baptists would say that the government has the right to limit religious liberty in a case like this one.
When the Supreme Court applies “strict scrutiny” to law that limit people’s free exercise of their faith, they usually come up with rulings that are comfortably compatible with the Baptist view of religious liberty.
LN: As you look at the state of religious liberty in the U.S., what do you see as the largest cultural or legal threats? Are there places that are going to be clear points of conflict in the coming years?
BB: I once said that the points of tension in American law regarding religious liberty have been soldiers, schools, solicitation, sister-wives, sabbaths, sacrifices, surgeries, sex, and ’shrooms. I could go into detail about each one, but instead I’ll just mention the ones that I believe present the greatest likelihood of future conflict.
Schools have been the major locus of conflict about religious liberty since Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963. I think that contest is waning. Culminating in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, there may be a workable solution coming into place in which students and teachers are free to exercise their faith while the official educational program of public schools must avoid scholastic content or policies that favor any system of religious belief over another.
What is displacing the topic of religion in the public schools as the major area of unrest is the burgeoning conflict between the sexual revolution and the exercise of religious faith in the workplace and in the public sphere. Whether we are talking about the baker Jack Phillips in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission or the Catholic Social Services organization in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, cases are on the rise pitting the new laws about sexual orientation and gender identity against people trying to exercise their faith.
LN: July 4th is coming up. How can Christians rightly celebrate this holiday, understanding the importance of religious liberty at the heart of it?
BB: I understand people’s concerns about the danger of letting patriotic elements get out of hand in a worship service. Any worship service in which Jesus is not the hero of the service is a false worship service. And yet, with that having been said, if Jesus can be the hero of a story in which someone’s cancer goes into remission, someone’s slavery to an addiction is broken, or someone’s sacrificial giving is given back them them by the Lord’s hand—if testimonies or sermon illustrations about any of those things would be welcome in a worship service, I think Jesus can be the hero of a story in which believers in this country are enabled by our constitutional liberties to gather for worship and to send missionaries around the world proclaiming the gospel.
Our Constitution does not confer upon us the right to serve God. We would do that even if it were illegal to do so. Rather, our Constitution means that we need not hide while we worship, plant churches, and train and send missionaries. That freedom not to hide has meant much greater effectiveness for American churches. That’s something worth celebrating.
LN: What words of encouragement and advice do you have for us as we seek to follow Christ faithfully?
BB: We have religious liberty not because governments encountered the dormant compassion in their hearts but because they confronted the weakness in their arms. They put true followers of Jesus Christ to the rack, burned them at the stake, drowned them in the Limmat River, and fed them to the lions. Still, they were never able to prevail against Jesus’ Church. The power of the gospel has vanquished every petty tyrant who has come up against it. Be strong and take courage.