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All people have access to the public square, Land tells journalists

NASHVIILE, Tenn. (BP)–All people are entitled to the liberty to practice their religious faith, Richard Land told a gathering of black journalists during a discussion of faith-based initiatives.

Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, participated in a panel on religion in public life at The Trotter Group, an association of black columnists and reporters meeting at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

DeWayne Wickham, a columnist with USA Today, told Land he was troubled by the idea of faith-based initiatives, which he described as a “treat to the black churches.”

Admitting during the Nov. 8 session that he too was uncomfortable with faith-based initiatives, Land said he was convinced to support the idea in principle after attending a summit of black and Hispanic church leaders.

Land said he was particularly concerned about state and church entanglement but was willing to support a plan for religious groups to partner with the government with “certain constitutional protections,” in that there must always be a secular alternative and there must be a separation of the “faith teaching” from the act of serving needs.

“We can’t have the government sponsoring the proselytizing of faith,” Land said, noting that he recommends Southern Baptist churches not participate in the programs. Yet Land reminded the journalists he didn’t speak for all Southern Baptists. “Nobody speaks for all Southern Baptists,” he added.

Panelist Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College in Nashville, agreed with Land’s assessment of faith-based initiatives, expressing concern that government’s involvement with the church might “compromise [the black church’s] prophetic voice and compromise their autonomy in a way that when they had to speak about issues of systemic and structural injustice they would be limited in doing so.”

Black churches were doing these kinds of ministries before the contemporary idea of faith-based initiatives was raised, Harris said. If it had not been for black churches, he said, “many of us in this room would not be as healthy and as emotionally and psychologically balanced as we are.”

Most Southern Baptists are opposed to government-sponsored religion, Land said, likening it to getting hugged by a python. “It will squeeze the life out of you,” he said. “If the government sponsors it, they think they own it.”

“We have the empty cathedrals of Europe to show us what happens when the government gets into the religion business,” Land said, noting that the founding fathers never intended the separation of church and state “to mean the separation of religious conviction and religiously informed moral values from public policy.”

Askia Muhammad, a columnist for the Final Call, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper founded by Louis Farrakhan, pressed Land about “blasphemous” comments made by Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham in the past about the Islamic faith.

“I have not heard anyone personally say that followers of Islam are not part of America,” Land said. “We believe in religious freedom and religious liberty in this country.”

Citing his testimony before a congressional subcommittee on the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, Land said the legislation is an attempt to “restore rights that were put into law by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that have been eviscerated by the courts.” He said the bill proposes to “guarantee the right of people to practice their faith and wear religious garb and to have their religious needs accommodated in the workplace.”

“We don’t really believe in secularism in this country,” Land said. “We’ve been told that we believe in secularism, but we really don’t. We believe in pluralism.”

In countries like France, however, Land said, “Their supreme value is secularism. Muslim girls cannot attend public schools in France if they wear head scarves. Jewish boys cannot attend public schools wearing yarmulkes. And Christians cannot go to school wearing a cross above a certain size.”

Such restrictions are the natural outflow of the “enshrinement of secularism as the ultimate value,” Land said.

Courts have ruled that Muslim girls in Muskogee, Okla., may wear a head scarf to public school if they choose to do so, Land continued. “What we believe in this country is pluralism, the right of everyone to have access to the public square, and to not be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or because of their religious practices,” he said.

When pressed again about Robertson and Graham’s comments, Land said, “They’re big boys. They can answer for themselves. I said at the time that I disagreed with them, and I still disagree with them. I don’t think they speak for a majority of people in their faiths.

“We don’t need to be relativists or believe that there are not real and meaningful differences between religious faiths to defend to the death everyone’s right to believe what they believe,” he said.

“We have to defend the right of the Hare Krishna to annoy us at the airport, and we have to defend the right of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to knock on our door at suppertime,” Land said.

“If we allow the government to discriminate against these groups today, they will be discriminating against Baptists tomorrow. We are all in this together. We have to defend the right of every person of faith to exercise that faith. This is an international right,” Land said, quoting from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

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  • Dwayne Hastings