UPDATE: Arkansas Baptist News published a letter to the editor from John Wofford, pastor of Armorel Baptist Church in Blytheville, Arkansas, the messenger who questioned ERLC's president, Russell Moore, at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention (video below). I appreciate my brother Arkansan's explanation and thank him for offering further context to his question. I also agree with Pastor Wofford that Dr. Moore failed to answer exactly the question he posed. Platform respondents are notorious for bloviating rather than speaking to direct questions. Indeed many times I've observed them running on and on and on about nothing really until the coveted Moderator's refrain, "time for questions has expired" is sung. This can be very frustrating.
Nevertheless, even after Pastor Wofford has been given public airtime, so to speak, to "rebut" Dr. Moore's answer, my main reservations I offered below remain substantially unchanged; namely, the way Pastor Wofford framed the question to Dr. Moore invited the response he got. In other words, the question couldn't have been more perfect for a response like Dr. Moore gave.
More specifically, consider the pastor's question as he clarified it in his letter to the editor:
'So, the question is: “Would Jesus Christ stand in a court of law, defending the rights of a false religion to erect mosques, temples or other places of worship which are clearly in violation of the First and Second Commandments of God?” I think not.”'
In response, first of all, I'm personally uncomfortable staging scenarios in which we put words & actions in Jesus' mouth and life. While "What would Jesus do?" kind of rhetoric makes good for a spiritual novel, I'm unsure it actually assists us all that well for making moral decisions in real life. The fact is, Jesus continually did and said the unpredictable in the gospel narratives often surprising His closest comrades. Hence, what makes us think we can accurately predict what Jesus would say or do within a staged setting having little to no parallel circumstances? Indeed a better question(s) perhaps proving more helpful would be: "What did Jesus, in fact, do?" "What did Jesus, in fact, say?"
More significantly, the question the pastor raises even in clarified form seems to me to be entirely too difficult to defend. For example, would Jesus defend the rights of Disciples of Christ to baptize persons in order to be saved, a doctrine most Baptists I know find in clear violation of biblical revelation? Would Jesus defend the rights of Lutherans, Catholics, and Presbyterians to baptize infants, a practice of which most Baptists I know find clearly unscriptural? (note: Presbyterians do not baptize infants for the same reason as either Lutherans or Catholics but they baptize infants nonetheless).
The point seems clear: Pastor Wofford's question raises serious doubts as to exactly how universal religious liberty might be possible in a nation made up of anyone but a Baptist population--and a particular kind of Baptist population at that!
I hope I'm wrong.
Second, I think my pastor brother conflates the principle of religious liberty with pushing religious belief. The good pastor concludes that
"to enter into coalitions or allegiances with unbelievers, especially as it pertains to their false worship. If we enter into an inter-faith group and begin to lobby for or to assist them in the erecting of their places of worship, we have violated the clear teachings and instructions found in the word of God and we have become partakers with them in their sin."
In response, given the very nature of a democratic polis, it would appear virtually impossible to live in a democratic society where all coalitions or allegiances with unbelievers remain absent. But that is precisely what Pastor Wofford seems to suggest. Second, I'm unsure Scripture "especially" notes an added evil premium when liaisons with unbelievers happen to pertain to false worship. Wouldn't a liaison (i.e. social contract) with unbelievers to allow abortion mills to legally operate without governmental interference, yes, even operate with cash from our Christian taxes, not also qualify as public evil as much as constructing a chapel for false worship?
Third, while we agree that Dr. Moore and the ERLC appear to offer poor reasoning for their involvement in the Maine mosque fiasco (since it's questionable religious discrimination had actual factual presence in the case denying the mosque a building permit), it's clearly a leap in both reasoning and Scripture to infer those who lobby for religious freedom "become partakers with them in their sin." Embracing the principle of religious liberty for all does not imply compliance to the religious belief of all.
For my part, Pastor Wofford would have been far more persuasive had he argued along the lines of Georgia's Christian Index's editor, Gerald Harris, by affirming the religious liberty of all (including Muslims) while questioning whether Islamic terrorists as a "Geo-political movement" can hide under the protective rights US citizens have under our constitution. In other words, there's good reason we can embrace universal religious liberty and reject absolute religious liberty while remaining faithful to both Scripture and our constitution.
Here's my take:
A) While I sympathize with what I perceive as the intent of my Arkansas brother's question to Dr. Moore, I most certainly would not have phrased it the way he chose (Fact is, he should have had his question written out). My brother's framing of the issue in terms of universal religious liberty--a teaching Baptists have virtually always embraced for all religions and no religion--rather than absolute religious liberty--a teaching that Baptists have not necessarily embraced--set up Dr. Moore perfectly to skirt the real issue with his leadership on this issue. For the issue is not whether American Muslims can and should worship in mosques according to their conscience. The constitution guarantees religious freedom for all Americans. That is, all Americans are protected under first amendment rights. And, we as Baptists must (or, at minimum should) support that universal right for all Americans.1
Thus, Moore was correct so far as he spoke on universal religious liberty. But the real issue is not with Islam as religion per se. Instead the real issue concerns whether aggressive Islamic terrorists can and should be empowered by first amendment rights to hide under the protective cover of our constitution in order to systematically exterminate Western democracy. So all Moore's rhetoric about religious liberty including Muslims too reduces to little more than useless verbiage from the SBC platform. Moore skirts the real issue. Unfortunately for the questioner, the way he framed the question to Moore invited the response he got.
B) What is more, Moore continued on speaking senselessly about discrimination on building mosques in certain areas, alluding of course, to his decision to join 16 groups (many groups of which are reportedly made up of radical Muslims) on May 11 to file an amicus brief in federal district court arguing a New Jersey district "improperly applied different legal standards to a mosque simply because it is a mosque." But as Baptist Press reported, given local testimony, it's entirely unclear actual discrimination was in view. Moreover, Moore failed to mention his noteworthy absence concerning religious liberty when Georgia Baptists were recently needing assistance from the ERLC.
C) Most concerning of all with Russell Moore's answer offered to my fellow brotherly Arkansan is what can only be called an ostentatious posture toward his fellow Southern Baptist. Listen again the way Moore sets up his response. He basically says to the brother,
Some questions are worthy of consideration. I like good questions, and love to ponder good questions. And some questions are excruciatingly difficult to answer. But your question is so entirely stupid and ignorant, no thought whatsoever is called for to give you a response.
This kind of "dressing-down," put-you-in-your-place attitude coming from Southern Baptist leaders has simply got to stop. Who in Sam Hill do some platform leaders think they are? I hear some of them over and over publicly speak so humbly as if they are our servants. They are there to serve Southern Baptists. I even heard one say once something like, "Look brothers and sisters. I work for you. You are my boss!" If there's even an iota of truth in that, where is the humility when questions come from the floor? Sometimes the duplicity hangs ominously at gag level.
Nor is it just the platform.
Note the crowd jeering and encouraging Moore on as he pulverizes his prey with, "That's about the stupidest question I've ever heard." Why is a culture of intimidation promoted at the Southern Baptist Convention?2
While we cannot control what an unpredictable crowd might do, we surely can and must expect our platform leaders to get their act together and make darn sure the personalities who speak from the platform do so humbly and respectfully toward all messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention.
The fact is, the Chair could put a stop to any ostentatious posture by whispering in his cocky ear, "Either speak respectfully to sincere questioners or don't speak at all. If you insist on putting him or her in their "place," the Chair will rule you out of order."
If that was done just one time, I'm quite sure we'd be set for five or more conventions before it'd ever be brought up again.
1Though I'm neither a legal expert nor a vocational ethicist, we should note that while first amendment rights apply universally to all Muslims who are legal citizens of the United States, there exists neither legal nor moral reasons why first amendment rights must be extended to illegal immigrants within our borders. In the end, I'm simply suggesting this: while there's every reason to embrace universal religious liberty, it remains questionable at best whether any society could sustain the notion of absolute religious liberty.
2Frankly, I know personally how it feels to get "dressed-down" when asking questions from the floor. Not only that, the crowd also jeered and whistled during the "dress-down."