Conservative Christians Grapple With Whether 'Religious Freedom' Includes Muslims | KERA News

Conservative Christians Grapple With Whether 'Religious Freedom' Includes Muslims

Jun 29, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 6:44 pm

Religious liberty is a rallying cry for many evangelical voters, and it has been popping up repeatedly throughout this presidential campaign. But in the current political climate, some conservative Christians are struggling with how to apply religious freedom to other faiths — like Islam.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made religious freedom a hallmark of his failed campaign for the Republican nomination. Now, presumptive nominee Donald Trump is picking up the theme.

"Religious freedom. The right of people of faith to freely practice their faith. So important," Trump said in a June 10 speech in Washington, D.C., to members of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

On June 21, in a room full of evangelical leaders in New York City, Trump again promised to protect religious freedom. The presumptive GOP nominee said if he's elected, "people are going to say 'Merry Christmas' again."

For decades, fights over religious liberty in the U.S. have mostly been about the religious liberties of Christians. Evangelicals have rallied around issues like prayer in public schools, and more recently, whether conservative Christian vendors should be required by law to provide services for same-sex weddings.

But now, as the nation's small but growing Muslim population gains a higher profile, other questions are emerging, including debates in several communities over the right to build mosques.

Pastor John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church in northeast Arkansas raised that question at a national meeting of Southern Baptists this month.

"I would like to know how in the world someone within the Southern Baptist Convention can support the defending of rights for Muslims to construct mosques in the United States when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans?" Wofford said. "They are murdering Christians, beheading Christians, imprisoning Christians all over the world."

It had been just days since a gunman who had pledged loyalty to ISIS shot and killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The gunman was also killed.

In response, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore warned that letting the government restrict Muslims could lead to restrictions on Christians. He believes Christianity is the only true faith, and people must choose it freely.

"Sometimes we have really hard decisions to make — this isn't one of those things," Moore said. "What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody."

Moore leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which recently signed on to a legal brief supporting the right of a group of Muslims in New Jersey to build a mosque. His answer was met with enthusiastic applause — but he has also faced criticism from some fellow conservatives, including Wofford.

On a recent Sunday morning, after a fire-and-brimstone sermon, Wofford said he believes the U.S. Constitution protects all religions, including Islam. But Wofford doesn't believe Southern Baptist leaders, who draw their salaries from dues paid by local congregations, should be advocating for the rights of Muslims.

"So what I am actually doing if I support and defend the rights of people to construct places of false worship, I am helping them go to hell. And I do not want to help people go to hell," Wofford said.

Some Christian groups dedicated to defending religious freedom argue for equal treatment for all faiths, out of the principle that discriminating against one religion could threaten them all.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Matt Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Council, which focuses on religious freedom litigation on behalf of Christians but has also represented at least one Jewish client.

"Religious freedom is for all of us or it's for none of us," Staver said. "If we want to pick and choose, what's the standard? And if it's only that might makes right, then that means it's a political struggle and whoever is the ruling class at any particular time, they're the ones that have their say."

In a tense presidential election year, such debates have a tendency to become political. After the meeting with Trump in New York last week, several evangelical leaders held a press conference, where they praised Trump's promise to protect religious liberty.

Asked how that pledge applies to Muslims, conservative columnist Ken Blackwell responded that he favors freedom for all faiths, but his primary concern is the rights of Christians.

"I was more interested in hearing Donald Trump say that he was willing and ready to defend religious liberty not just for Christians, but including for Christians, in the public square," he said.

Pressed on Trump's call to temporarily ban Muslim immigration — a proposal that has appeared to shift over time, but which Trump has yet to explain in detail — Blackwell said that issue will be part of an ongoing "conversation" between Trump and evangelical leaders. He said many conservative Christians see the real estate developer as more favorable to their concerns about religious freedom and other issues than his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

"We're not going to, in fact, throw him overboard" over the Muslim ban issue, Blackwell said.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Religious liberty is a rallying cry for many evangelical voters. The issue popped up repeatedly during the Republican presidential primary season, and presumptive nominee Donald Trump is picking up the theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Religious freedom - the right of people of faith to freely practice their faith - so important.

SIEGEL: That was Trump speaking to evangelicals in Washington earlier this month. But in the current political climate, some conservative Christians are struggling with how religious freedom applies to Muslims. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Donald Trump spoke to hundreds of evangelicals in New York last week. He promised if he's elected, quote, "people are going to say Merry Christmas again."

BILLYE BRIM: The things he said are the things we need - religious freedom.

MCCAMMON: Billye Brim runs a prayer retreat in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. She was at the closed-door meeting.

BRIM: We don't want Christianity to be muffled, silenced.

MCCAMMON: For decades, evangelicals have rallied around issues like prayer in public schools and more recently whether conservative Christian vendors should be required by law to provide services for same-sex weddings.

But with the threat of terrorism inspired by radical Islamic groups and Trump's rhetoric about Muslims, some conservative Christians are asking questions like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN WOFFORD: I would like to know how in the world someone within the Southern Baptist Convention can support the defending of rights for Muslims to construct mosques in the United States when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans.

MCCAMMON: Pastor John Wofford raised that question at a national meeting of Southern Baptists earlier this month in St. Louis. It had been just days since a gunman who'd pledged loyalty to ISIS killed 50 people, including himself, at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore responded that letting the government restrict Muslims could lead to discrimination against Christians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSELL MOORE: Sometimes we have really hard decisions to make. This isn't one of those things.

MCCAMMON: Moore leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which recently signed on to a legal brief supporting the right of a group of Muslims in New Jersey to build a mosque. Moore's answer was met with enthusiastic applause, but he's also faced criticism from some, including Wofford, pastor of Armorel Baptist Church in northeast Arkansas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Inaccessible hid from our eyes...

MCCAMMON: In an interview there, Wofford said he believes the Constitution protects all religions, including Islam, but he doesn't want Southern Baptist leaders to advocate for the rights of other faiths when he sees Christianity as the only true path.

WOFFORD: So what I am actually doing if I support and defend the rights of people to construct places of false worship, I am helping them go to hell.

MCCAMMON: For others, the question is more complicated. After Trump's meeting with evangelical leaders in New York last week, several praised his pledge on religious liberty. Asked how that applies to Muslims, Conservative columnist Ken Blackwell had this response.

KEN BLACKWELL: I was more interested in hearing Donald Trump say that he was willing and ready to defend religious liberty, not just for Christians, but including for Christians in the public square.

MCCAMMON: Blackwell said Trump's call for a temporary Muslim ban will be part of an ongoing conversation with evangelicals. Many see Trump as more favorable to concerns about their own religious liberty than his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. So they're unlikely, as Blackwell put it, to throw Trump overboard over religious freedom for Muslims. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.