FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The greatest danger to religious freedom in America is not violation of the First Amendment’s no-establishment clause but violation of the free exercise clause, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Land’s comments came in a debate with J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Nov. 2.
“I think the greatest threat to religious freedom is government suppression of the free exercise rights of American citizens to express their religious convictions and to bring their religious convictions to bear on the public policy issues of the day,” Land stated. Land went on to note that the BJC overemphasizes the no-establishment clause, and that is the greatest distinction between the BJC and ERLC.
“The cause of freedom and the intent of the original framers of the constitution are best served when the First Amendment’s religion clauses are understood as being interdependent parts of the same whole,” Land said.
Walker concurred, saying that both clauses were equally important and “stand as twin pillars in our constitutional architecture to uphold the wall of separation that is so critical to ensuring our religious freedom.”
Government should maintain a complete hands-off approach regarding all religious matters, Walker said.
“Government should not try to give religion a helping hand or to hurt religion,” he said, “but to leave religion alone, to turn it loose and allow people of faith to practice their religion as they see fit.”
In his opening statement, Land said there is an atmosphere of religious persecution in America from some governmental bodies. However, Walker replied that using the term “persecution” disparages people suffering true persecution around the world.
“I cringe when I hear people whine and cry about this great persecution of Christians in the United States of America,” Walker responded. “Look at China, Sudan, Indonesia, Burma, Nigeria and read about the atrocities and instances of genuine persecution and then count your blessings to be an American citizen.”
Later, Land agreed that “persecution is too strong a word at present.” However, he warned that “harassment, suppression and discrimination unprotested and uncorrected will become persecution.”
The debate began with 15-minute presentations from each man followed by five minutes of rebuttal time for both. After a short break, Land and Walker responded to questions from people in attendance.
Among the first questions asked during the session was whether the two men supported government-sponsored Bible teaching in public schools.
“I opposed the [BJC’s] guidelines that were sent out,” Land responded. “I don’t think the government can do it right.” He voiced concerns that schools would teach “about” the Bible rather than from the Scriptures themselves.
Walker endorsed biblical teaching in public schools, saying, “The Bible is going to be taught whatever we do. So let’s try to help teachers do it well.” He said he would like to see the Bible “taught like it was a Sunday school lesson.”
Asked why the BJC does not support the posting of the Ten Commandments in government institutions and public schools, Walker said he believes its display in such places is unconstitutional.
Walker said he does not want teachers “to teach the Bible like it’s a Sunday school lesson” or “as just another book and to be hostile to it.” Instead, he said he wants the Bible to be taught “in its multifaceted nature.”
The BJC and others who support the teaching of the Bible in public schools are not trying to “supplant what is being done on Sundays in Sunday schools and from the pulpits, but to at least give all of our students a basic idea of biblical awareness that they might not otherwise get because they don’t go through the doors of the churches and synagogues and houses of worship in this country,” Walker said.
“I’m not willing to jettison the fact that it is the Holy Scripture for Christians and Jews,” said Land, who did endorse the display of the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Supreme Court building.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: LAND AND WALKER DEBATE.