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Free to Choose Christ

Why the ERLC Advocates for Religious Liberty for All

Jordan Wootten

Last year, messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting voted to adopt a resolution on the Uyghur genocide, calling upon the Chinese Communist Party to immediately “restore to the Uyghur people their full God-given rights.”1https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-the-uyghur-genocide/ While the resolution passed unanimously, there remain some who have questioned why Southern Baptists should advocate for groups like the Uyghurs, many of whom are followers of Islam. As Southern Baptists, our answer to this question is clearly stated in Article XVII of the Baptist Faith and Message—because religious liberty belongs to those who hold to “any form of religion” (emphasis added).2https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#xvii-religious-liberty

If we believe, more broadly, that freedom—religious or otherwise—is a right endowed on all people, to what extent are we willing to act upon that belief on behalf of others? Are we willing to take what we affirm in the Baptist Faith and Message and apply it to all our neighbors, both here and abroad, when their religious freedom is being unjustly ignored or trampled upon?

Why Does the ERLC Prioritize Religious Liberty for All?

We can’t answer these questions until we have addressed the more foundational question, “why?” Why should Southern Baptists—or Christians generally—advocate for the freedom and just treatment of people of all religions or no religion at all?

Imago Dei 

Why should we advocate for all people? First, because Christian anthropology begins in Genesis 1, where we learn that all people, without exception, are made in the image of God. 

In his book, Dwell: Life with God for the World, Barry Jones says, “make sure your theological anthropology begins in Genesis 1 and not Genesis 3.”3Barry Jones, Dwell: Life with God for the World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014). The first chapter of Genesis contains the creation account, where we learn of God’s power and humanity’s privileged status as those made in his image. In the third chapter, we witness humanity’s precipitous fall into sin, tarnishing (but not diminishing) that image and breaking everything else with one fateful bite of fruit. Both events are true, and both are seismically important.

Often, our assumptions about humanity, especially about those of different religious faiths, are firmly rooted in Genesis 3 and nowhere else. But our fallenness and depravity are only possible because there is something more fundamentally true about us: we are made in God’s image. That humanity is irrevocably made in God’s image means that we all possess certain fundamental rights. And as Southern Baptists we affirm that one of those rights is religious liberty, which is grounded in our understanding of soul freedom—the ability to choose whether or how each individual follows God.

The Ministry of Jesus

Secondly, we should advocate for people of all religions because the ministry of Jesus compels us to. Soul freedom is at the core of Jesus’ itinerant and ongoing ministry. In the New Testament, for example, Luke’s gospel transports us to a Nazarene synagogue where we hear a sermonette Jesus delivered to a crowd of people. Kicking off his teaching, Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, from which he read:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19, CSB, emphasis added).

At his coming, Jesus is saying, those held captive, imprisoned, and oppressed—both spiritually and physically—have the hope of being liberated by God’s only begotten Son, who has come and announced an end to their enslavement. But Jesus didn’t only proclaim release to the captives; he actually set them free. For example, in the region of the Gerasenes, Jesus introduced “the year of the Lord’s favor” to a long-oppressed captive by freeing him (Luke 8:26–38). This man, seen as an “other” by the religious community, was set free from his spiritual and physical bondage by the eternal Word made flesh. 

As those who have been released from spiritual captivity (Rom. 6:17, 2; Col. 1:13), we have been called to take up the ministry of Jesus and, through evangelism, proclaim release to the captives. But should we not also, through advocacy, work to set free those who are oppressed physically? This is central to the work of God’s people, even on behalf of those whose beliefs fundamentally clash with our own. After all, religious liberty is not merely freedom from oppression, but the freedom to act in accordance with one’s conscience. And because “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” religious liberty for all is a right the church should affirm and insist that the state not infringe upon.4https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#xvii-religious-liberty

Christians are Ambassadors for Christ

If Christ came to “proclaim release to the captives” and “to set free the oppressed”—to bestow liberty, in other words—then, as his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), we ought to go out on his behalf and carry on his work. This is why religious liberty is supremely important to the ERLC’s work.

The ERLC is committed to advocating for this first freedom on behalf of all peoples. We have focused much of our attention on being a voice for the Uyghurs, a group enduring brutality at the hands of the Chinese government.5Oppression and the Olympics: What Christians Should Know About China’s Human Right Atrocities, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffEQ463eGB8 Many of the Uyghur people have been subjected to reeducation camps, forced labor, and even forced sterilization in women. We supported various pieces of legislation including the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and urged the United States government to issue an official determination that the CCP is committing genocide. 

The ERLC was also a part of an amicus brief in the case of Ramirez v. Collier, which concerned the religious rights of a prison inmate in Texas. We asked the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez, who was sentenced to die for his crime, and allow him to have his Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. On March 24, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ramirez and affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

Likewise, we are standing firmly opposed to The Equality Act, a bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal civil rights law. The bill would curtail religious freedom protections, hinder the work of healthcare professionals and faith-based hospitals, undermine civil rights protections for women and girls, and ultimately steamroll the consciences of millions of Americans.6https://erlc.com/equalityact/ 

Religious liberty is essential because true faith cannot be coerced, nor should it be outlawed. Where soul freedom is not recognized by the state, the state is violating those made in the image of God and the freedom of its citizens. As ambassadors of Christ, then, we seek not to coerce or strongarm consciences, or permit the state to do so, but to advocate for their freedom and, by God’s grace, make our appeal to those free consciences to be reconciled to their Lord. 

And, like Jesus, our words are to be paired with action. May we be those who take Christ’s good news to oppressed peoples here and abroad, working to set them free spiritually and physically, until the earth is “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children.