News Articles

ERLC’s Land presents religious liberty award to president

WASHINGTON (BP)–President George W. Bush received a Southern Baptist award for his advocacy of religious freedom in a Jan. 29 presentation at the White House.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, presented the entity’s 2006 John Leland Religious Liberty Award to Bush in the Oval Office. The ERLC gave the award to the president for “courageously defending the right of all people to exercise freely their religious faith,” according to the framed citation.

“I can’t think of another president in my lifetime who has done more to promote religious liberty specifically as a fundamental human right around the world than” Bush, Land told Baptist Press.

The award, which was presented for the 15th consecutive year by the ERLC, is named in memory of a Baptist preacher of the late 1700s and early 1800s who strongly advocated for religious freedom. Leland worked with James Madison, often described as the Father of the Constitution, to gain support for the First Amendment’s guarantees of no government establishment of religion and no interference with religious free exercise.

Bush expressed gratitude for the award and said it was “really an honor,” Land told BP.

Among the reasons listed for Bush’s selection, the award cited the president as:

— “A staunch advocate for the right of people throughout the world to live out their faith without fear;

— “An effective opponent of anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and ethnic prejudice;

— “A faithful witness to his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to both his countrymen and the world’s leaders.”

Bush personally raised religious freedom as an issue with the leaders of both China and Russia, Land said in giving specific instances of the president’s religious liberty advocacy. Land also cited Bush’s support of Israel and his 2003 address in the West African country of Senegal that was “one of the most eloquent speeches in behalf of racial justice and racial equality that I’ve ever heard,” the ERLC president said.

Speaking at Goree Island, once a major departure point for slaves destined for the United States, Bush said in that address, “By a plan known only to Providence, the stolen sons and daughters of Africa helped to awaken the conscience of America. The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free.”

Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, joined Land in the oval office ceremony.

The ERLC’s trustees voted in September to give the 2006 award to Bush. Previous recipients have included U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum; Congressmen Charles Canady and Frank Wolf; the late Adrian Rogers, three-time SBC president; the late evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry; and Gleb Yakunin, the Russian Orthodox priest who advocated for human rights in the former Soviet Union.

Bush appointed Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for two terms from 2001-04. Land is now serving on the panel as a selection by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The USCIRF is a nine-member, nonpartisan panel appointed by the president and leaders of Congress to research the status of religious liberty in other countries and to provide reports and recommendations to the White House and legislators.

In response to the president’s questions about Leland, Land told him about the Virginia Baptist preacher’s meeting with Madison near Orange, Va. In exchange for Leland’s support of Madison’s election to the convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution, the future president agreed to promote an amendment protecting religious freedom. That liberty was guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Land said he also told the president about Leland’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson, even after the Baptist preacher moved to Massachusetts. As president in 1802, Jefferson attended a worship service in the House of Representatives at which Leland preached. This came only two days after Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association containing the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” Land said.

Land said he encouraged the president to “strongly consider” the invitation from SBC President Frank Page to speak at the convention’s June meeting in San Antonio.

Land, who is serving as interim pastor of Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, told Bush more than 100 people at the church the day before asked him to tell the president they were praying for and supporting him.

Land said he led in prayer for the president at the close of the event, which lasted about 20 minutes. He prayed for guidance for Bush, as well as protection for his family and him. Land said he also prayed “God would make him aware of the millions of Christians who are praying for him every day.”

Duke told BP, “I was especially impressed by the president’s openness. I found him to be very approachable, warm and genuinely winsome. I left with an even deeper appreciation for the man and his presidency.”

Land said, “The opportunity to present the award in that setting was a rare honor that reflects well on all Southern Baptists and was a personal privilege that I will cherish for the remainder of my days.”