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Georgia Baptist official says religious freedom is not for Muslims

Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, speaks out in favor of a 2015 “religious liberty” bill at the Georgia Capitol. Photo by Bob Andres, courtesy of The Atlanta Journal Constitution

(RNS) Religious freedom is a foundational tenet for Southern Baptists, but apparently one church official in Georgia didn’t get the memo, at least as it applies to Islam.

Now Gerald Harris is facing sharp criticism, but also the prospect of a Ramadan meal with local Muslims who have invited him so he can get to know them better.

Harris, editor of the Christian Index, the official newspaper of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, initially drew fire when he penned a June 6 editorial asking why the leading agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention were joining other groups in the legal fight by Muslims in New Jersey who faced opposition in building a mosque.

“While Muslims around the world and in our own country are shouting ‘Death to America,’ should we be defending their rights to build mosques, which often promote Sharia Law and become training grounds for radicalizing Muslims?” Harris wondered.

Continuing his lengthy broadside against Islam, Harris wrote that he believes “Islam may be more of a geopolitical movement than a religion.”

He said that even if it were a religion, “religious freedom for Muslims means allowing them the right to establish Islam as the state religion, subjugating infidels, even murdering those who are critics of Islam and those who oppose their brutal religion.”

“Americans kept Communism in check during the Cold War, guarding our borders against those who wished to dismantle our way of life,” he concluded. “Will we do the same when another political ideology endangers our future?”

Harris singled out Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which had signed on to the legal brief on behalf of the New Jersey Islamic community, for particular criticism.

In a column on Wednesday, Moore shot back, writing that Harris’ views “would represent a direct contradiction of our confessional document and all of its predecessors.”

Moore noted that Roger Williams, the Colonial forebear of the Baptists, “stood up for the right of an unpopular minority in early New England, the Baptists, not to christen their babies.”

And he wrote that Williams “explicitly said such freedom ought to extend to ‘the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish’ consciences as well since we are not to extend God’s kingdom by the sword of steel but by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”

Moore said that failing to defend religious liberty for all, whether you agree with them or not, opens the door to government control of religion, which is the death of real faith.

“When we say — as Baptists and many other Christians always have — that freedom of religion applies to all people, whether Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative,” Moore wrote. “We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying that religion should be free from state control because we believe that every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.”

The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also responded to Harris’ attack, not with a rejoinder but by inviting him to an interfaith dinner in Atlanta on June 18 to break the Ramadan fast that is a central observance of the Islamic holy month.

Harris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a family commitment may prevent him from making that meal but that he planned to attend another one at some point.

The head of CAIR-Georgia, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, told the newspaper that “Americans who meet and greet their Muslim neighbors tend to hold far more tolerant and positive opinions about Islam.”

“We look forward to a friendly discussion with Dr. Harris about the values that unite us as Americans, people of faith and human beings,” he said.

But Harris also indicated he wasn’t necessarily ready to back down on his claims about Islam.

“I would be interested in finding out more about the Council on American-Islamic Relations,” he told the AJC. “I’ve read about it. It professes to be for religious liberty. I would like to know if they would be willing to have a Christian church built in Mecca. That would be a demonstration of religious liberty, I think.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

37 Comments

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  • Muslims should not feel bad. Southern Baptists also don’t believe religious freedom applies to progressive Christians or any other minority faith either. They have a long history of being the go to church for people wanting to excuse bigotry.

  • Famous quote from the Koran:
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
    Oops, my bad. That was from Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48)

  • Christian hypocrites. The religious right believes the U.S. is a christian nation and they are in the driver’s seat. The reality is they are no longer. They want to use the govt to allow them the right to discriminate. This resistance they equate with “persecution” .

  • I grew up in a large Southern Baptist church, but am now a Jain. I continue to follow events and trends in the SBC, and a recent trend is a decline in membership. Could this be related to a triumphalist Calvinism that has taken hold of so many of the leadership, theologians and pastors within the SBC, and cast a sad self-righteousness over a denomination that used to provide a home for moderate to somewhat liberal evangelicals. The purging of moderate, non-Calvinist professors from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY several years ago was sign of what has now become the norm. In his later years Roger Williams became alienated from mainstream Baptists because of their narrowness.

  • It’s so much fun to hear one theocrat criticize other theocrats for being theocrats. I think it’s what baptists call shariaing the Good News.

  • So where in the Koran was your quote? All I see is an editorial and a poor reference to the New Testament.

    Religious freedom doesn’t just extend to the religions you like or agree with the tenets of their faith. It extends to everyone. People like Harris are nothing more than lackeys for ISIS. Feeding right into their recruiting rhetoric.

    You are not going to defeat Islamicism by attacking the values we hold dear. Replacing one theocratic mindset with another. You are going to defeat it by showing how wrong they are. That despite the arglebargle of ISIS and co, Muslim belief can accepted in this nation without fear of persecution. By showing that Islam does not equal terror and war.

    You want an example of how American Islam can be, look no further to the man who was buried recently, Muhammad Ali. A man who was willing to suffer personal hardship for his principles, saved the life of a complete stranger, and tried to use his influence to free people held by Islamicist terrorists. Exactly the kind of example to show the world.

  • “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

  • Not the point. You are being patronizing. So arrogant, inappropriate and off topic of you.

    One Southern Baptist spokesperson, seeks to attack religious freedoms of others they themselves enjoy.

  • Not at all. The former house Church of the KKK and leaders in anti gay discrimination efforts deserve the criticism.

    You frequently mistake criticism for prejudice and fail to acknowledge the obvious prejudices of your own.

  • What’s the point of being a Baptist if you can’t hate people for being different from you?

  • No, floydlee, it doesn’t. Liberals are right because they make an effort to follow the teachings of the founder of their religion. That’s Christianity, not Baptistness.

  • Thanks for the link. The article by Bart Barber is really outstanding – thoughtful, considered, supported factually. I’m really glad you provided the opportunity for me to read it. I recommend to other commenters here.

  • Because it is their newest form of religious sanctioned bigotry. They picked it up when racism fell out of fashion. Part of the continuing legacy of hate for God from that church.

  • Re: “… Harris wrote that he believes ‘Islam may be more of a geopolitical movement than a religion.'”

    As though the Christian Right in the US somehow isn’t a “geopolitical movement”!? The stench of this man’s hypocrisy — condemning one religion over its “political” aspects, while vociferously ignoring the “political” nature of his own — is overpowering. Maybe he ought to stick a crowbar into the Bible he long ago slammed shut, pry it open for once, and actually read some of what his own deity taught him … namely, that as a Christian, hypocrisy of this kind (or any other!) is explicitly forbidden to him:

    “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7:5)

    “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Lk 6:42)

    Time for Harris and his Christianist ilk to grow up for once and start actually following the religion they say they belong to, rather than some other religion of their own invention that they’ve somehow tacked Jesus onto.

  • We most certainly are not Christian nation. The USA is a secular nation infested with Christians.

  • Jesus was a man like any other man who was able to communicate with God. He set a standard that all of us can follow for a better life. Christians made him into a God so that that anyone else who doesn’t follow their beliefs will go to hell. In time, I believe they will become the minority because education and how we treat one another will prevail..

  • “we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative,” Moore wrote. “We are fighting for the opposite.”
    And there you have it folks: The Baptist path is Gods path, and any other path leads to hell and damnation, and deservedly so. (Their God is a tyrant). That’s what they like about him.

  • We have a minimum thousand years of history, beginning at minimum with the crusades, and continuing on to the colonization and exploitation of the entire world, that shows that Christianity is a geopolitical movement.

    Someone is just jealous that someone else thought of it first.

  • As with many aspects of Christianity, the religion’s political nature goes back much further even than that! Roll back centuries prior, and you’ll find Popes crowning monarchs (e.g. Charlemagne) and being handed sovereignty in their own rights (i.e. over the Papal States); you’ll find emperors meddling directly in Christian doctrine (e.g. Justinian I), along with princes of the Church inciting the state to warfare (e.g. over Monphysitism and Nestorianism before that). And prior to all of that, you’ll find churchmen appealing for emperors to wipe out “heresies” and execute “heretics” that mortally offended their pious sensibilities (e.g. many bishops’ appeals to Constantine I which led to him convoking the Council of Nicaea).

    Really, once emperors Licinius and Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity in 313, Christians themselves almost immediately crafted themselves into a political movement. This was, perhaps, inevitable given that tolerance had been granted solely because Christianity had, by then, become common in the East and both emperors needed to placate the eastern population, since at the time that region was the Empire’s engine of agriculture, commerce and industry.

  • What part of: “Congress shall make no law respecting an
    establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or
    abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the
    people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a
    redress of grievances.” does he not understand? ….”…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”. Definitely a hypocrite in my book.

  • I know that. I was feeling lazy, and didn’t wish to go back more than 1000 years. I thought 10 centuries of political religionism was enough.

  • Let’s through all of the haters hats into the ring my favorite right next to the KKK is “BLM”

  • Since Islam requires that Christians either convert to Islam or pay a high tax, maybe the USA should require the Muslims to convert to Christianity or pay a high tax. It could slow the Muslim invasion and make it less likely that they would kill us.

  • The Root of Muslims’ Violentce, for those who completely follow Mohammad, is the Qur’an or Koran. This book teaches terrorism and needs to be banned like some other Violent Literature.

  • Americans are being killed after Islamic Radicals “The Faithful” follow Mohammad’s instructions in the Qur’an or Koran.

  • And you know this as a devout follower of Islam? Of course not. You are just repeating nonsense spewed by both anti Islam types and Islamicist groups it’s telling that both have the same goals. Pretending Islam is just the crazies and marginalize anyone who believes otherwise.

    Like all extremists of any faith, it’s all about being loud and obnoxious. It’s all about pretending they are the only voice of a given faith. The only differences being the level of secularism and democratic freedom of a given place which keeps extremists in check.

  • I’m talking about the masses of people. On the individual concept it is a belief that Jesus was totally human.No supernatural power or coming back to earth in a spiritual form. A person who understood how your obedience to God over your ego would result in a better life for mankind.Christianity has made Jesus a God believing that no person could follow another person unless he was a God.In reality, following a person such as Jesus is not difficult if you believe he is human. Otherwise, you would be always saying that I try and follow Jesus, but I can’t because he is a God.

  • Education will never supplant faith, only increase it. I stand by my comment. Jesus was fully man and fully God. Christianity didn’t “do” that, it was Created by that, then corrupted by years of the ego that was not replaced effectively by God himself, which is a basic tenet.

  • I am not saying education will replace religion but it will work in harmony for reason.As for Jesus being fully man and fully God I believe that is why we are where we are.

  • Actually the opposite. Christianity, the real kind, the Jesus kind, looks out for the other guy BEFORE oneself.however, if someone is into self-destructive or community destructive behavior, should they not be told? Be respectful enough to excuse themselves? And if not? America, in its base and original configuration, is almost the perfect combination of organizational methodologies to allow the proper management of community, including the primarily positive input of Christianity. Why do you think the world has improved in the way it “had” in recent centuries. Capitalism? Ha!

    Back to Christianity, no other organization of any kind has benefited so many people, multiplied billions, over so long a time, millennia, and with comparatively miniscule negatives. And …continuing even now benefiting millions daily, even AND ESPECIALLY those who are non-adherent.

    It works, proven, and case closed. Nothing else is as comprehensive.

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