Friday, April 12, 2013

The North Carolina General Assembly, Rowan County Commissioners and Religious Freedom

I had a very good church history professor in seminary named Dr. William R. Estep.  Dr. Estep taught me a lot about Christian history and especially Baptist history.  He inspired me so much that I chose to pursue a PhD in Church History.  Most of my research and publication has concentrated in the area of Baptist History.

One of the defining characteristics of Baptists in the 17th century (when the movement began) was their intense devotion to religious freedom.  Unlike other dissenting groups in the 17th century, the Baptists believed and agitated for religious freedom for all people (Christian, non-Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, etc.).  This devotion to religious freedom for all comprises a unique contribution of the early Baptists to the world.  They wanted no part of establishment for religion.

The early Baptists knew their history well.  They understood, and had experienced for themselves, the dangers of establishment.  They knew that when the state had an established religion, other religions suffered.  And they also knew that what might be established today could easily be disestablished tomorrow.  So, one group might have the power right now but with a change in the government, a new group might have the power.  Simply put, the early Baptists knew the value of the "Golden Rule" when it came to advocating for religious freedom.  "I will grant you the freedom to practice your faith as you choose because I would want the same from you if you were in power."

Dr. Estep inspired me because in him I saw a modern Baptist who remained loyal to the 17th century Baptist notion about religious freedom.  He understood, like our Baptist forebears, that although Baptists are no longer dissenters and in the minority on the American religious landscape, nevertheless, we need to remain consistent to the principles of religious liberty for all.  If I heard him say it once, I heard him say it a dozen times: "freedom of religion has always got to guarantee freedom from religion."  He understood that establishing one religion, or showing favoritism to one religion, can have the opposite of the intended effect.  State support of one religion actually serves to weaken all religion.  Just look at the history of established churches throughout Christian history!  Establishment tends to weaken rather than strengthen.

So, that brings me to Rowan County (my home county) and the North Carolina General Assembly.  The Rowan County Commissioners are engaged in a dispute right now with the ACLU over the issue of Christian prayers to open its meetings.  They are contemplating a lawsuit over the issue.  The Forsyth County Commissioners have already litigated this same issue all the way to the SCOTUS, which refused to hear their case.

This means that the lower court rulings, that such sectarian prayers are unconstitutional, must stand.  It is the law of the land.  The Rowan County Commissioners will waste thousands of taxpayer dollars if they choose to litigate an issue that is legally a dead end.

That reality is probably what prompted two Rowan County representatives (NC Reps. Henry Warren and Carl Ford) to the NC General Assembly to propose a bill a couple of weeks ago which made national headlines.  It was supported by 14 other Republican legislators as well.  Essentially, their proposed bill would nullify SCOTUS rulings for the state of North Carolina.  If the state didn't like the rulings, the state could nullify them.  The same argument has been tried unsuccessfully since the end of the Civil War.  In the matter of religion, it would allow the state of North Carolina to choose an established religion.

So, here's what Warren and Ford are up against.  They are carrying water for the Rowan County Commissioners who are fighting their own losing cause that has already met a dead end in Forsyth County.  They are also using a legal argument (nullification) which has been tried since the Civil War, particularly in civil rights issues.  They are showing a complete ignorance of the dangers of establishing religion.  And, perhaps most importantly, establishing one religion over all others would be a direct contradiction of the Golden Rule.

Bill Leonard (James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the Wake Forest Divinity School), wrote a column today that discusses this issue much better than I.  It is located here:

The best line in the whole column is this: "The issue is not the loss of religious liberty, but loss of religious privilege."  I suspect he's right.  A couple of generations ago religious pluralism meant Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, non-denominational, Catholic, all Christian groups living together in community.  Today, all over America, religious pluralism is being redefined.  Have you seen a mosque in your hometown yet?  It will be coming soon.  Have you noticed the new Buddhist temple going up in the county seat town?  It will be soon.  The American religious landscape is changing at light speed.  One day in the not too distant future, Christians may realize that we no longer corner the religious market.  Hopefully, then Baptists will once again become the agitators for religious freedom for all.  And, when that day comes, it will be much easier for Baptist Christians to make that argument if we abide by the Golden Rule now.