Immigrating to Boston from Britain in 1630, Roger Williams is generally regarded as the father of religious liberty in the United States.
He advocated a “wall of separation” between religion and government.
He opposed forced conversion of Indians to Christianity.
He refused to take loyalty oaths. He called himself a “seeker” rather than a Christian.
He was probably the most controversial freethinker of his time.
And he was a Baptist.
That will come as a surprise to many people, who tend to think of today’s Baptists as the bedrock of the Religious Right. But many Baptists are returning to their roots.
I personally come from the American Baptist tradition and have long both appreciated the baptist principles of freedom of religion and respect for others’ rights to choose their religious commitments and despaired of the way that many baptists have abandoned that heritage in favor of shrill, condemnatory, and exclusivist stances.
So I was delighted to read Lawrence Swain’s column in InFocus (“the largest Muslim newspaper in California”) about new efforts to bring together Baptists and Muslims to learn more about each other and develop mutual appreciation.
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Baptists, have joined together with over 30 Baptist associations and groups to develop “A New Baptist Covenant,” a re-affirmation of baptist root principles and commitment to religious freedom. One of the first projects will be to develop Baptist-Muslim dialogues.
Swain writes, “`We need to repair the damage done by Baptists who made hurtful statements about Muslims in the past,’ Dr. A. Roy Medley, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches, told InFocus. `If you believe in religious liberty, you must respect other religions. The best way to witness to your own faith is through humility and service,’ he said. Medley has put out press releases disassociating his denomination from bigoted statements made by certain leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
I look forward to being able at last to bring together two of my own commitments- to my baptist heritage and what I believe it could mean in the new religious America, and my commitment to developing and strenghening interfaith relationships.