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‘Chicago Declaration’ released June 2; religious liberty: the ‘Great Freedom’

CHICAGO (BP)–A declaration on religious freedom signed by several dozen evangelical leaders, including several Southern Baptists, was released June 2. The document presents a unified response to those who contend that sharing an evangelistic witness “undermine(s) a peaceful, pluralistic society and may lead to intolerance, bigotry and even violence.”

Titled “The Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom”, the document affirms that: “Only a society that permits free discourse within the robust marketplace of ideas envisioned by America’s founders can safeguard the true liberty, freedom and human dignity we all pursue.”

The two-page document was drafted by a group of Christian scholars, theologians and church leaders at the invitation of Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, and Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Phil Roberts, vice president and resident theologian for NAMB, who coordinated the project, said it is called the Chicago Declaration because most of the planning and writing meetings were held in Chicago. The document has 21 original signers and has been endorsed by more than 60 additional evangelical leaders.

“Evangelicals have run headlong into a sobering reality in our nation — the noose is tightening around the neck of religious liberty,” Reccord told Baptist Press. “Society seems tolerant of most everything except the freedom to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality that he alone is the only way to a personal relationship with God.”

Land said the document “proclaims the cherished tenets of religious freedom embodied in our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I’m hopeful it will silence the inflammatory and inaccurate accusations of intolerance and bigotry against Southern Baptist evangelism efforts.”

Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, also endorsed the Chicago Declaration. “Open religious dialogue and the right of every person to choose his own faith have come under fire around the world and, unbelievably, in our own nation, which was founded on the principle of religious liberty,” Patterson said. “The fact that some groups have even alleged the possible association of hate crimes with evangelism has made this declaration necessary.”

The Chicago Declaration is divided into four parts. The first section, “The Great Freedom: Religious Liberty,” affirms that the “freedom to worship God without government coercion and to exercise liberty of religious conscience is fundamental to any serious notion of human rights.” It quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The Great Commission: Christian Witness” explains Christ’s command to his followers to “share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others, even when they are censored or suppressed for doing so.”

The signers pledge in the third section, “The Great Command: To Love God and Neighbor,” to “respect the value, dignity, and human rights of all with whom we speak.” They also “acknowledge the shame that some Christian churches have failed to exercise proper respect for the rights and dignity of others.”

Land explained, “The issue has always been not contempt but love and our obligation and right to express that love and concern through sharing the gospel. Evangelism and witnessing are actions generated out of love and concern, not hostility or hatred.”

The Chicago Declaration concludes with a pledge to “defend the rights of others to hold their own religious convictions, to challenge our beliefs, and to attract converts to their religious faiths.” Roberts agreed, saying, “We want to go on record protecting and upholding religious freedom for everyone to agree or disagree and to do their own evangelism, whatever religious movement they are a part of.”

In addition to Reccord and Land, original signers include Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ; Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship; Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans; Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary; David Neff of Christianity Today; Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council; Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice; Joe Stowell of Moody Bible Institute; and John Woodbridge of Trinity Evangelical Seminary.

Among the endorsers thus far are John Ankerberg, Kay Arthur, Jerry Falwell, Carl F.H. Henry, D. James Kennedy, Beverly LaHaye, Charles Lyons, Bill McCartney, James Merritt, John Maxwell, R. Albert Mohler Jr., J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul.

A full list of signers and the text of the Chicago Declaration can be reviewed at the Christianity Today Internet site, www.christianityonline.com/ct/religiousfreedom.

Reccord summarized the effort saying, “If religious people do not strive to protect the freedom to express their faith in public places, the inevitable result will be that religion will be privatized. If that happens, the response will be, ‘You can have your religion as long as you keep it to yourself.’ That’s not what Christians are commanded to do.”

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