On his Senate campaign website, Roy Moore says, “Religious liberty is the civil rights issue of our time.” But when Roy Moore talks about religious liberty, he doesn’t mean what the founders or the early Baptists who first articulated a doctrine of religious liberty meant. He means religious liberty for a small subset of evangelical Christians who believe this nation is meant to be a theocracy and who would strip religious liberties from the rest of us.
In 2014 Moore released a video suggesting that the First Amendment applies only to Christians. “They didn’t bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship, the Mayflower,” Moore said. “Let’s get real. Let’s learn our history. Let’s stop playing games. . . . Everybody, to include the U.S. Supreme Court, has been deceived as to one little word in the First Amendment called ‘religion.’ They can’t define it . . . . They can’t define it the way Mason, Madison and even the United State Supreme Court defined it, ‘the duties we owe to the creator and the manner of discharging it.’ They don’t want to do that, because that acknowledges a creator god. . . . Buddha didn’t create us. Mohammed didn’t create us. It’s the god of the Holy Scriptures.”
Perhaps Moore should learn our history. Both the early Baptists who provided the theological framework for religious liberty and the framers of the Constitution did indeed intend religious liberty for all.
In his 1612 treatise, “A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity,” Thomas Helwys, one of the pioneers of Baptist tradition, advocated for complete religious liberty for all people:
Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertaines not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” Why? Helwys argued, because people’s “religion to God is betwixt God and themselves” (qtd. in Shurden, 47.) Helwys’ declaration was so radical that he was thrown into prison where he died in 1616.
Roger Williams, who founded the first Baptist church in the United States in Providence, Rhode Island in 1639, similarly wrote:
It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men* in all nations and countries (Williams, 83).
Baptist commitment to religious freedom was so deep that these early thinkers also advocated even for those who desired freedom from religion. In the 18th century, another Baptist, John Leland, wrote:
Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing (qtd. in Shurden, 50).
In the early 20th century, E. Y. Mullins explained, “we stand for the freedom of the atheist, agnostic, and materialist in his religious or irreligious convictions” (qtd. In Shurden, 50). George W. Truett added, “Our contention is not for mere toleration but for absolute liberty” (Truett, 63).
In Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, James Madison wrote, “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
Clearly, Roy Moore has created his own revisionist history to support his bigoted, discriminatory, and unconstitutional views.
Even as an Alabama Supreme Court justice, Moore maintained that his particular beliefs about the Bible outweighed the Constitution and the rule of law. He was first ousted from his seat as chief justice for his refusal to follow a federal court demand that he remove a statue of the 10 Commandments from the courthouse. Alabamans reelected him to that seat. He said, “I have no doubt this is vindication for what I stood for. . . . Go home with the knowledge that we’ll stand for the acknowledgment of God.”
The second time he was removed from office was because he ordered Alabama’s probate judges to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples after the US Supreme Court declared marriage a constitutional right.
Moore’s engagement with national politics amplifies his threats, not only to religious liberty, but also to LGBT citizens (he believes homosexuality should be criminalized), women (he opposes abortion and supports the “personhood” movement), people of color (he called Native Americans and Asian Americans “reds and yellows,” and pro-confederacy activists held commemorations of Alabama’s secession at the foundation Moore headed), transgender people (in supporting Trump’s military ban, he pointed to what he called transgender people’s “misguided confusion over their God-given chromosomes,” and Muslims (he called Islam a “false religion”). He rejects science when it conflicts with his personal interpretations of the Bible, and he believes events like 9/11 are God’s punishment.
Moore claims US law is beholden to “biblical law,” but Moore’s reading of the Bible is based on a kind of fundamentalist literalism that ignores the nature of written texts, the church’s history with the Bible, and a hundred years of sound biblical scholarship. That makes Moore especially dangerous as he seeks national political office.
Roy Moore is no champion of religious liberty. He is, in fact, a proponent of religious exclusivity and religious discrimination. He is the antithesis of those early advocates of religious liberty who understood its unconstrained application to each individual conscience. Religious liberty is indeed one of the most important civil rights issues of our time, but Roy Moore is an adversary of true religious liberty, and we must be vigilant in our opposition to his theocratic impositions.
Fifty-eight percent of Alabama’s population are regular church attenders. Almost half of Alabamans are evangelicals, and about 1.75 million of Alabama’s nearly 5 million citizens are Baptists of one sort or another. These folks have played a huge role in taking Roy Moore this far in his quest. We can only hope enough of them reclaim their roots in Baptists’ longer role in struggling for religious liberty to prevent the threat Roy Moore represents to us all.
*I recognize the gendered language in these quotations is problematic for contemporary readers, but the historic importance of the quotations has led me to include them as they were written.
Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys 1993.
Truett, George W. “Baptists and Religious Liberty.” in Walter B. Shurden, ed. Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1997: 61-84.
Williams, Roger. “The Bloudy Tennent of Persecution.” in Leon McBeth, ed. A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage. Nashville: Broadman, 1990: 83-90.