WASHINGTON (ABP) — As the national debate over Islam continues to ratchet up in advance of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Baptists joined a group of religious leaders Sept. 7 in denouncing Islamophobia, urged the nation’s top law-enforcement official to crack down on anti-Muslim bigotry and chastened their fellow Baptists for contributing to the problem.
But not all Baptists were in agreement, as demonstrated by a public spat over Islam between the pastor of one of the nation’s most prominent Southern Baptist churches and a Dallas Morning News columnist.
In a midday Sept. 7 press conference packed with reporters from national and international media organizations, Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, Roy Medley of the American Baptist Churches USA and Gerald Durley of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta joined other prominent interfaith leaders in condemning what they called the “anti-Muslim frenzy” of recent weeks.
“We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our community, and by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship,” said a statement the leaders — representing a broad array of evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim groups and convened by the Islamic Society of North America — released shortly after meeting in what they called an “emergency interfaith summit” in Washington.
“We stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans,” the statement continued, referring to highly publicized plans by a tiny evangelical church in Florida to hold a public burning of the Quran on Sept. 11.
“As religious leaders, we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today,” the statement said.
Medley told reporters he was appalled that some Baptists have been among those casting public aspersions on Islam and Muslims.
“Some of the most offensive statements about Islam, unfortunately, have come forth from the Baptist community, and therefore some of us as Baptist leaders felt it was important for us to join with the Islamic Society of North America and our Muslim brothers and sisters in order that we might live out our Baptist values of religious liberty,” he said.
Rich Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, blasted Christians who would cast aspersions on Muslims or deny them constitutional rights.
“To those who would exercise derision — who seek bigotry, open rejection of our fellow Americans for their religious faith — I say: Shame on you,” he said. “As an evangelical, to those who do this, I say: You bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ, you directly disobey his commandment to love our neighbor, you violate the command, you see, not to bear false witness and — not least of all — you drive the watching world further away from any interest in our gospel message.”
Walker, Gaddy urge Holder to protect Muslims’ rights
Later on Sept. 7, two Baptists — Gaddy and Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — were among a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders who met with Attorney General Eric Holder. The summit was a follow-up to an Aug. 30 meeting in which the leaders urged Holder’s Department of Justice to move swiftly to prosecute anti-Islamic hate crimes, denounce the upswing in anti-Muslim rhetoric and work to ensure that American Muslims — many of whose leaders have said they feel more insecure now about their safety and religious freedom than at any other time since immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — are protected.
“As the attorney general has noted on previous occasions, violence against individuals or institutions based on religious bias is intolerable and the department will bring anyone who commits such crimes to justice,” said a statement Justice officials released after the meeting. “Americans of every faith have the right to worship and practice their religion in peace, and the department will continue to work with its state and local partners to ensure that this right is upheld.”
A Justice spokesperson said Sept. 8 that Holder had no immediate plans to issue any further statement about the issue.
Gaddy said Sept. 8 that in the meeting Holder “was very attentive, very open to recommendations — but what he is also intent on doing is using his presence and his voice in the way that is most helpful. And I think he and his staff are trying to figure out what is most helpful for him to do.”
Gaddy, who also is preaching pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La., acknowledged that the issue of Islam had become a political football in the run-up to contentious mid-term elections in November.
“I think that there are many politicians who are running every bit as scared as are their constituencies, and there is such a desire to win an election that some of these people are going to do whatever they have to do to win and that involves dividing to conquer,” he said. “And they’re making what many of us see as the important issue of religious freedom a utilitarian tool to pander to prejudice.”
Prominent Dallas pastor, columnist spar over Islam
While Baptist leaders from a wide variety of ideological perspectives have condemned the planned Quran burnings as hateful and dangerous, not all have seen eye-to-eye on other critiques of Islam. In his Sept. 5 Dallas Morning News column Steve Blow took his fellow prominent Baptist — First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress — to task over recent statements Jeffress made about Islam.
“It's hard to know where to start in expressing dismay with the Rev. Robert Jeffress — for being uninformed, un-Christian or un-American,” Blow wrote, discussing a video clip from an Aug. 22 “Ask the Pastor” forum at which Jeffress took questions from members of his church. The congregation is one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest and most prominent.
One question dealt with comparisons between atrocities committed in the name of Christianity — such as the Crusades — and those committed in the name of Islam.
Jeffress said that, while Christians have certainly committed atrocities before, they have been “somewhat overblown” by the historical record — and that any massacres or atrocities done in the name of Christ were different than those committed in the name of Islam because “they have been done in opposition to the teaching of the New Testament.”
Christian teachings don’t encourage violence, Jeffress claimed. “But Muslims, when they commit violence, they are acting in accord with what the Quran teaches,” he said.
He went on to call Islam “oppressive” because of the way it treats women, “evil” and “violent.”
Jeffress concluded, to applause: “I believe, as Christians and conservatives, it's time to take off the gloves and stand up and tell the truth about this evil, evil religion.”
Blow said such language is dangerous in a world where American troops are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq to prove that the United States is not an anti-Muslim country.
“Do you think it helps for a prominent pastor back home to disrespect Muhammad as ‘this so-called prophet,’ to refer to him and his followers as pedophiles and to proclaim all of Islam an ‘evil, evil religion’?” Blow wrote. “And how far do you suppose that video clip has already spread across the Muslim world?”
Jeffress took 10 minutes prior to his sermon in the church’s televised Sept. 5 morning worship service to criticize Blow’s column and defend his own comments on Islam. “What I said about Islam two weeks ago … was based on facts,” he said.
“I stand by my statement … that Islam is a false religion built upon a false book that is written by a false prophet,” he continued, to a standing ovation from the congregation.
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.
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