Originally posted June 12, 2013
HOUSTON (BP) — Religious freedom has become the most significant issue in American culture, Russell Moore told reporters at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The new president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a question-and-answer session June 11, said religious liberty is the premier issue “because without a sense of freedom of conscience you do not have the place to articulate the Gospel” and advance Christ’s mission.
That does not mean religious freedom is only for Christians, Moore said.
“We’re not an interest group claiming our own rights,” Moore said. “This is religious liberty for everybody, because we believe the conscience cannot be negotiated away. We believe that the Gospel comes to free people. That means we believe in freedom of conscience and the ability to speak openly in a free marketplace of ideas.”
The ERLC and other religious liberty advocates have pointed to the military and health care as two of the arenas in which freedom of conscience is at risk. The ERLC has joined with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board to express concern regarding recent developments that have called into question the Pentagon’s commitment to religious freedom for chaplains and troops. The ERLC also has signed on to friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the freedom of conscience of employers who oppose the abortion/contraception mandate in the federal health care reform law.
Southern Baptists “have to contend for religious liberty constantly and to be on the lookout for where those threats to religious liberty will be in five, 10, 15 years,” Moore told reporters from Baptist and secular news outlets. “As Baptists, I think we have a unique contribution to make as those who come from a long legacy of preachers of the Gospel who refused to be co-opted by the state and who also refused to be impeded by the state.”
Moore addressed the news media in his first SBC meeting since becoming ERLC president June 1 after the retirement of Richard Land.
Asked about the possibility that churches may lose their tax-exempt status, Moore said he hopes that will not happen, though he indicated it may someday become a reality.
Moore described tax exemption for churches as “an important aspect of protecting religious liberty. The power to tax is the power to destroy.”
“Obviously though, the church of Jesus Christ has to be ready to stand true to its principles and true to its Lord regardless of the political situation,” he said. “There are times when the church must say to the state, ‘We cannot abide by your rules and regulations.’ And there are a number of alternatives at that point. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Regarding ethical and religious freedom issues, Moore sees the ERLC’s role as “serving as the catalyst for conversations within churches because I believe churches are the places where Christians are shaped and formed and where consciences are re-created and sent forward” into the world, he said.
Moore rejected the idea that Christians “can form some sort of bubble in which we are isolated out from the world.” Instead, he cited Romans 12:21 to say followers of Christ should make sure they are not “overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
Moore said he thinks “expressions of outrage, boycotts consistently against everyone who doesn’t conform to our sense of values [are] not an effective way to engage culture.”
“What I am really burdened to do is to try to speak prophetically to the churches and also speak for the churches to the outside culture” with kindness and gentleness, he told reporters. “I don’t think kindness is weakness. I don’t think gentleness is capitulation. I think this is the way that Jesus speaks and speaks the truth in love.”
Regarding evangelicals’ relationships with Democrats and Republicans, Moore said, “[T]he church of Jesus Christ is not owned by any political party and shouldn’t be co-opted by any political party.”
The ERLC will “keep a prophetic distance that enables us to speak honestly and bluntly to people in both parties,” he said.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).