By Bob Allen
The head of a Baptist organization dedicated to upholding religious liberty for all Americans joined Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in a pledge signed Oct. 23 in Washington denouncing all forms of religious bigotry.
Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, attended a worship service promoted as “The Gathering of Faith Leaders of Major Religions” Friday morning at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Walker added his signature to a pledge to “uphold and defend the freedom of conscience and religion of all individuals by rejecting and speaking out, without reservation, against bigotry, discrimination, harassment and violence based on religion or belief.”
“I believe religious liberty is a gift from God and that governments should seek neither to advance nor inhibit religious choices,” Walker said at a press conference. “Individual citizens and religious bodies should exercise their faith responsibly and fully respect the religious beliefs of their neighbors.”
The event was sponsored by Shoulder to Shoulder, a coalition of 31 religious denominations and organizations committed to ending anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Founded in November 2010 by a group of faith leaders including then Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal, the coalition includes the Decatur, Ga.-based CBF, American Baptist Churches USA and Progressive National Baptist Convention.
“Each of our religious traditions teaches that human beings have the opportunity and the obligation to build communities in which peace and mutual respect are core expressions of an ethical life,” says an online pledge at the Shoulder to Shoulder website. “Our religions also teach us that we must stand up for the rights and freedoms of all members of the communities in which we live, including people of faith backgrounds distinct from our own. This vision of just treatment for all human beings is born of our religious faith and commitment to fundamental American values and is manifested through our support of the principle that religious freedom must be guaranteed to people of all faiths and of no faith.”
“In sharp contrast to this vision, recent years have too often witnessed a rise in hateful activity that seeks to degrade other religions and deny the religious freedom of many, particularly American Muslims,” the pledge continues. “There has been an increase in hate speech, crimes and bullying directed against Muslims; growing opposition to the building or expansion of mosques; a series of state legislative initiatives across America aimed at discriminating against religious practice by Muslims and others; and policies and trainings for government and law enforcement officials that have been rooted in misinformation.”
Friday’s event at the National Cathedral followed a first-ever national gathering of evangelical pastors and imams Thursday night at First Baptist Church in Glenarden, Md. The “Spreading the Peace” convocation, spearheaded by Pastor Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, included a presentation of a new survey on pastor’s attitudes toward Muslims by LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer.
The survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors conducted by telephone Sept. 8-21 found overall more positive impressions of Islam compared to five years ago, but among evangelicals, 52 percent characterized Islam as spiritually evil.
Fifty-nine percent of evangelical pastors said their beliefs are closer to Franklin Graham’s 2012 statement attacking Islam as an “evil and wicked religion” than to former President George W. Bush’s assessment that “The Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.”