Does the Golden Rule apply to mosque building?

Religious Freedom in the town where I grew up meant that the Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Independent Baptists, Nazarenes, the Church of Christ, Free Methodists, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) could worship pretty much as they pleased.  I feel like I am forgetting a church or two, but don’t think I am forgetting the Episcopalians, Catholics or Lutherans.  They were absent from the religious landscape of my youth.  There was an Episcopal church in the next town, but I never went there. What I heard about the Catholics from the radio preachers was not good.  My first encounter with a Lutheran did not occur until I was in college.  His lack of inhibition when it came to alcoholic beverages made me think that the Lutherans had something in common with the Disciples of Christ, because one time when I was a senior in high school and working at the Rocky Top Market, their minister came in at a real busy time and bought a six-pack of beer.  I was dumbfounded.  No self-respecting Baptist would have ever purchased beer in such a crowded store.

What would have happened in Rockwood, Tennessee in the early 1980’s if a group of Muslims had tried to build a mosque?   Maybe nothing would have happened.  Curiosity would have been piqued to be certain.  It is really hard to say.  The Soviets still occupied the arch enemy position in most everyone’s mind, and Pearl Harbor was the worst attack we had ever suffered from an enemy.  We had gone through the Arab Oil Embargo, and 9/11 had not happened yet, so maybe Muslims building a mosque would not have been that big of a deal — or maybe it would have.

But now, 9/11 has happened and there is nothing anyone can do to change that fact. Even though the Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest day in our nation’s history, the events of 9/11 are much closer to us than a long ago battle fought between Americans. Most of us remember where we were that morning, if we do not actually recall watching it happen right before our eyes on the television.

Now there are issues with Muslims and mosque building.  Some people say that building a mosque near “Ground Zero”(the proposed site is two blocks from the where the World Trade Center once stood) would dishonor the memory of those who were killed there, and worsen the grief of those who lost loved ones there. There are those people who say that allowing a mosque to be built so close to “Ground Zero” would in some way signify that the Muslims had won.  I am sure that there are other people with other reasons for being opposed to the building of mosques, not just near “Ground Zero,” but at other locations around our country as well.  I am also certain that their reasons are heartfelt.

There are at least two reasons that those of us who are Christians and Baptists might have for not being opposed to the construction of a mosque in our state or in our nation.  The first is the familiar teaching of Jesus commonly referred to as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  There are followers of Christ who live in countries where they are not free to express their love, devotion and commitment to Christ.  A variety of pressure is brought to bear on them to keep them from living openly as followers of Christ.  They face disapproval from neighbors and family, difficulty finding housing and jobs, and in some cases arrest, torture and even death, all because they believe in Jesus.  What I hope and pray for these persecuted believers is that they would have the freedom to live their faith without fear of personal harm or reprisal.  I suspect that most Christians in our country wish the same for believers who are living under such difficult conditions.  Doing unto others means that we treat people of other faiths in our country the way that we would like for Christians to be treated in all countries.

The second reason is found in our beginnings as Baptists. There were no shouts of joy from civil or religious authorities when the first Baptists emerged on the scene.  In fact, the Baptists’ appreciation for the idea of religious liberty was forged in the prisons of England, and in the jails and on the whipping posts of Colonial America.  Coerced by king and colony to conform to the practices of the established religion, Baptists chose the prison cell rather than go against the dictates of conscience.  Baptists who know where they come from cherish not just their religious liberty to practice their faith as they feel led to do, but they understand that religion is not religion at all unless the man or woman who engages in it does so freely and without fear, coercion or manipulation.  In various ways through the centuries, Baptists have said that having no connection at all with God is better than one resulting from force.  The choices we make about God have to be made freely or they are not really choices.  Having been deprived of the freedom to make such choices in their early years, Baptists in America dearly cherish that freedom today, so much so that they extend it freely to those of other faiths or to those with no faith at all.

Following Christ is not always an easy thing to do.  There are times when doing so brings us into direct conflict with the voices of this world who are clamoring for their own way. However, Christ calls us to treat others not as they have treated us, or as they might treat us, or even as we think they ought to be treated, but to treat them as we would like to be treated.  The voices from our Baptist past help us to understand the wisdom of such hospitality.  Glenn Hinson writes, “God never asks those who witness for Him to use any means of persuasion stronger than the force of love.  Love is patient.  It will wait for God to decide.”


Celebrating Religious Freedom!

I would not hazard a guess as to how many preachers in these United States will make some reference this Sunday morning to our nation’s founding fathers, and their reliance on the Ten Commandments in forging the laws for our new nation. My suspicion is that such references will be numerous, if unfounded.  That is not to say that those who founded our nation were persons without religious conviction. They no doubt were persons with unique and personal understanding of what it meant to be religious. However, in founding a new nation, they took every precaution to make certain that religion would be free from unnecessary government entanglement, and that government would not be controlled by religion. Their goal was novel. No nation had ever existed that sought to so intentionally and purposefully protect the religious freedom of its citizens.

That we worship this Sunday in the place of our choosing, with the group of our choosing, in the manner of our choosing, and that we direct our worship toward the deity of our choosing, is a testimony to the ongoing success of their efforts to provide religious liberty for all. That a fair number of our fellow citizens will choose to not worship at all this Sunday, or will have already worshipped on Saturday or Friday, only serves to further illustrate the extent to which religious liberty and freedom of conscience prevail in our country.

Those who would suggest that our nation’s founding was the work of men who wanted to create a decidedly religious nation in general, or a Christian one in particular, would seem not to have read the relevant material.  Reading the Ten Commandments and the Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, readily demonstrates that there are fundamental differences in the intent and purpose of those documents.  A brief review of the Ten Commandments will quickly show that they did not serve as a basis for the founding of our nation.

You shall have no other gods before me. In a nation relying on the Ten Commandments to form the foundation of its government, the first amendment would never have even been conceived much less ratified. It in no way dictates that citizens must worship only the God that gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. What the first amendment protects is everyone’s right to worship any god they choose, or no god at all.

You shall not make for yourself an idol. From the soaring Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, the monuments and memorials that mark the American experience serve as vivid and poignant reminders of the lives and events that have formed and shaped our nation. Some would say that a monument is not an idol. Someone else would insist that it is. That debate can take place in a peaceful way in a nation were no law either for or against idols has been passed.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God. The framers of the U.S. Constitution took no chance on violating this commandment since they did not mention God even once in the document, wrongfully or otherwise.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. One might suggest that the observance of the fourth commandment was one of the rights reserved to the states or the people by the 10th amendment.  I have childhood memories of stores being closed on Sundays. Some cities had “blue laws” that enforced religious standards such as forbidding the sale of certain items on a certain day.  The framers were wise to leave this one alone, as even Southern Baptists no longer prohibit secular employment on the Lord’s day so long as it is “. . .commensurate with the Christian’s conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

Honor your father and mother. There is no mention of mom or dad in the constitution.

You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. This section of the Ten Commandment most closely resembles long-standing laws in our nation. The problem with trying to say that our founders used the Ten Commandments as the source for those laws is that most every country on earth, regardless of religious heritage, has similar laws.  Refraining from murder, adultery, theft or perjury is not a distinctively Christian practice. 

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.  This final commandment would seem to completely banish the notion that the Ten Commandments were a source for founding fathers. They did, after all, birth a nation on land that belonged to another. It was land that their fathers and grandfathers had coveted, and that there sons would continue to covet until, in some cases, whole tribes of people who once inhabited the land were extinguished.

This is not to say that those who sacrificed so much in order to found our nation were not men of good moral character. They were.  Yet, their morality was subject to the times in which they lived. Some of them owned slaves. They denied women the right to vote.

While most of the founders were connected to a Christian denomination, they were also doing their work as the age of enlightenment drew to a close. No doubt their work was influenced by John Locke and other enlightenment thinkers as much, if not more, than it was by their religious experience.

The Treaty of Tripoli was not ratified until John Adams held the office of President of the United States. Article 11 of that treaty reads as follow: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. . . no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” The treaty, only two pages long, was ratified in June of 1797 by a unanimous vote of the United States Senate.  A fair number of founders would have still been around the government at this time, if not actually in the government, not the least of which was Adams himself.  While it is doubtful that a treaty with such an article could be ratified in today’s hyper-charged environment of religious revisionism, it is ironic that some of the men who actually helped found our country did pass a treaty containing such sentiments.

Five years later, Thomas Jefferson penned his now famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In it, he said, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’  thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Few words sum up any better the tremendous gift that our founding fathers gave to people of faith in our nation. Baptist founder Thomas Helwys said much the same thing in 17th century England, “If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”

For expressing such an idea Helwys was imprisoned by King James I. Yes, the same King James whose bible so many Baptist still read. Helwys died in prison because he would not violate his conscience. Today we celebrate the freedom we have to worship and relate to God as we feel led by the Holy Spirit, and not according to the dictates of state-enforced religion. It is a wonderful freedom that we ought to cherish with gratitude and humility. Let us be mindful of the many believers around the world who have no such freedom, and still they worship the risen Lord, putting at risk their well-being and in some cases even their lives.