Baptists @ Ground Zero

The political debate over whether Muslims should be allowed to build a mosque near Ground Zero is making a mockery of the First Amendment.

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It also denies a principle Baptists have championed for 400 years.

You know the story: Muslims have applied for permits to build a mosque about two or three blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. New York city authorities have moved ahead with the process. Because of the pain and anguish inflicted by Islamist terrorists who crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers Sept. 11, 2001, many people have opposed a mosque so near ground sanctified by the blood of the crash victims. Now, politicians from all over the country have jumped into the fray.

This is a tender situation. Our wounds have not healed in the nine years since senseless violence turned the world upside down. For many of us, the crashes in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania turned 9/11/2001  into one of the saddest days of our lives. Even those of us who did not lose someone we knew personally still grieve deeply for the loss of life.

Intense turmoil

The tragedy has been fraught with religious turmoil, too. The terrorists who commandeered those planes slaughtered innocent lives in the name of Allah. In the meantime, others have committed suicide bombings and waged war and instigated other acts of terrorism in the name of Allah. So, many people—including millions of Americans—have assumed Islam is a hateful, terrorist religion. No wonder they feel revulsion at the thought of an Islamic mosque so near a place so sacred.

If you step back from raw emotion, however, you realize judging Islam by terrorists is like judging Christianity by the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nations or other racist hate groups. They do not represent your church or mine, or the way we understand how Christians should behave. And the Islamist terrorists do not represent peace-loving Muslims the world over, and particularly here in America, where so many have proven themselves to be loyal and patriotic citizens.

And they are citizens whose constitutional rights are protected as stringently and explicitly as the rights of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics and anyone else.

Religious guarantees

The First Amendment guarantees that the government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion. Telling a congregation of Muslims they cannot build a mosque is prohibiting their free exercise of religion—even if the desire to do so is completely understandable.

If Baptists or Catholics were attempting to build a church on that spot, the point would be moot. But because Muslims are asking, then refusal is patently discriminatory.

Baptist role models of liberty

Baptists, of all people, should stand with Muslims in their right to build a mosque. Our early history was written with the blood of martyrs who fought for religious liberty—first for themselves, but for all people.

The founders of the Baptist movement, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, were English Separatists who fled to Amsterdam, Holland, for religious liberty. Through their reading of Scripture, they became what we know as Baptists. When Helwys returned to England, he wrote a tract directed to King James I, declaring the king is not sovereign over individual conscience, and all people should be free to worship God as they see fit. King James (yes, that King James) threw Helwys in Newgate Prison, where he died.

A few decades later, in the New World, the first Baptist in America, Roger Williams, and his family were thrown out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for refusing to allow the Congregational Church to baptize their infant child. They would have died in the dead of winter had not the local Native Americans rescued them. 

Williams went on to found Rhode Island, where he also started the first Baptist church in America, First Baptist of Providence. In the Rhode Island charter, Williams stated his Baptist principles—religious liberty for all people. He guaranteed that Baptists, Quakers, Jews, Catholics, even unbelievers, should be free to worship—or not—as their consciences dictated. And, lest we think he just didn't know about all religions, Williams specifically advocated religious freedom for the people he called "Turks"—Muslims.

Another Baptist minister, John Leland of Virginia, helped convince  James Madison to secure the guarantees for religious liberty in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Live up to legacy

So, Baptists' clear legacy is to stand with all people—even people whose religion mystifies and scares us—to ensure their right to worship when and where they feel they should. 

This is hard, especially in such a tender and sensitive place and time. But the surest test of character happens when the issues are complicated, when the majority doesn't understand, when most is at stake.

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