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.”