A Word from Welton
Religious liberty continues to make headlines. What’s the real threat? What’s strategic hyperbole? And what are the possible long-term consequences of this whole debate? Rev. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance and host of State of Belief Radio shares his thoughts on the state of religious liberty today, and takes a look back at the history of religious liberty in our nation.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: In a presentation I made last week in Phoenix, AZ, I declared without equivocation my opinion that religious liberty in the United States is under an unprecedented assault. As those words rolled out of my mouth with conviction, I realized that I have made similar statements in every year in every decade of my adult life. But, never intentionally have I spoken those words as hyperbole. Each time I made that declaration, it was my honest opinion.
Further reflection on that moment of personal insight regarding the always-under-attack promise of religious freedom in the First Amendment to the Constitution got me back in touch with history and filled me with a desire to share a brief lesson in history with you.
Religious freedom never has been secure in this nation. Though our first freedom, a fundamental component in the architecture of our democracy, religious freedom always has been under attack—that was the case even when it became the lead freedom in our Bill of Rights.
Religious authorities tend always to want such freedom for themselves, but not so much for others! Even as the early patriots of our nation were drafting the Declaration of Independence, which we will celebrate next Wednesday, majority religions in the colonies were denying minority religious groups the freedom of religious expression for which they had traveled to this continent to experience.
So what is different now? Why my warning of a more tenuous status for this first freedom than in the past? Allow me to begin with general observations and quickly move to specific threats.
First, we went through a period when freedom became a dirty word associated not so much with independence as with abuse. Many made freedom a contradiction to responsibility—a heretical relationship at best. Freedom and responsibility are linked as intimately as are our minds and emotions.
Revisionist historians, uncomfortable with the religion-appreciative, but basically secular founders of our nation, began to write a new narrative about religious freedom—rewriting history to justify their own perspectives and elevate the concept of a Christian nation as a substitute to the stated goal of those who wrote our Constitution. But history is history and lies are lies.
Then came money—federal money—as a potential answer to diminishing dollars available for the support of religious ministries. Questions about why the federal government should not provide financial support for public education incited a controversy that rages to this day. Strategies to bypass the First Amendment so that the government could indeed establish a religion in our nation proliferated—direct government funding, vouchers, and eventually a new definition of religious freedom—a paraphrase of the religious liberty clauses in the Constitution that changes the meaning of the Constitution and allows one person’s or one organization’s free exercise of religion to compromise or eradicate another person’s free exercise of religion.
Before evangelical Christians and other conservative denominations became larger and richer, these groups fought government-subsidized private education. Indeed religious liberty was at the center of a major divide between Protestants and Catholics. But when evangelical groups began sponsoring schools and social-ministry institutions of their own, suddenly their voices merged with Catholic voices saying to the government, “Give us some money.”
Partisan politicians opportunistically looking for any upper hand in elections began to speak of the prohibition against government-funded religious activities as discrimination. Disdaining the history of religious liberty, they opened a door through which George W. Bush ran to announce a new policy of faith-based initiatives, in other words, government-funded religious institutions.
In this new situation, the understanding was that as long as a religious institution did not accept government money, that institution could claim an exemption for discriminatory hiring practices and indoctrination along with education in schools. Now, that final barrier protecting independence and religious freedom is under heavy assault.
Today, what I see as the greatest threat to religious liberty in our history is a will to ignore the wisdom enshrined in the Constitution by altering the historic definition of religious freedom to an extent that religious freedom can be cited as a reason for government-funded religious institutions, government endorsement of sectarian moral values, government establishment of theology-based social policies, and an eradication of religious freedom in the name of religious freedom.
Who would ever have thought that the issue that would highlight the religious liberty crisis in our nation would be contraception? But so it is. I have no business nor does Interfaith Alliance or the United States government meddling in the internal affairs of any religion in this nation. Why would anyone even want that prerogative? However, when the actions of religious leaders in any religious tradition seek government assistance in enforcing its values and imposing those values on the nation, that is no longer an internal issue within that religion, it is also a threat to the integrity of the Constitution that belongs to all of us.
Some Catholic bishops, true to their hierarchical tradition, are now joined by scores of conservative religious leaders in an effort to challenge both “the establishment clause” and “the free exercise clause” of the Constitution. My friends, by any definition, that is not a matter of internal politics within a specific religious tradition, that is a threat to the religious freedom of all of us. And, we best see it for what it is and work to prohibit the alteration of our history and constitution.
I have spent the most of my life working for cooperation across boundaries that have isolated religious traditions. Respect for each other’s differences and mutual cooperation are my goals. But that work requires religious freedom as much as does a healthy democracy. To be silent in the face of a movement aimed at redefining the role of religion in this nation cannot be defended.
Wake up Americans!
The government has no responsibility to endorse the sectarian values of any religion—even one claiming that it is being denied religious freedom—when that religion is seeking to use the government to impose a sectarian-based morality that violates the religious freedom of others.
How hypocritical it would be to celebrate our independence from England and our national constitution’s guarantee of freedom on July 4th while ignoring those in our midst who would, in the name of religion and freedom, subject all to the definition of freedom advocated only by a few. We dare not subject ourselves to the rule of any religion. Our government and its democracy must extend equal rights to all. But in our government no person and no religion has the right use their freedom as a means of destroying freedom for others.
Well, there you have it, a little history. I am looking forward to the Fourth. I hope all of us are resolved to let freedom ring—liberty and justice for everybody.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.