A rabbi friend forwarded me an email about an upcoming protest at a synagogue by a hate group that calls itself a Baptist church. Below is what I wrote back to my friend.
It was with much sadness I read the email you forwarded about an extremist Baptist group that plans to engage in an anti-Jewish protest outside a synagogue. This group, from what I understand, is radically anti-homosexual and usually targets venues where homosexuality is promoted or tolerated. I did not know, but am not surprised, that they are also anti-Jewish. Please understand that Baptist churches are autonomous. One Baptist church has no control over another, and even Baptist organizations and umbrella groups cannot tell an individual congregation what to do. The most they can do to discipline a congregation is to withdraw fellowship. Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka describes itself as an “Old School Primitive Baptist Church.” It is not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches, USA, or any of the other major Baptist organizations.
Groups like Westboro Baptist Church do not reflect the tradition of those early Baptists who stood boldly for freedom and toleration, like Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and organizer of the first Baptist church in America. He was not only one of the first Americans to advocate freedom of religion, but he also stood for the abolition of slavery and equal treatment of Native Americans. Or take Baptist preacher John Leland, for example, who was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for religious liberty. He worked with his friend James Madison to get Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Freedom Act passed in the Virginia state assembly in 1786. Not only did he advocate religious liberty, he also opposed slavery on moral grounds. You may also be aware that at the time Baptists founded Brown University (as the College of Rhode Island) it was the first institution of higher education to admit people regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs.
I know it may sound a little defensive to rehearse some of the Baptist roots of toleration, but I need to remind myself that those modern-day Baptist who specialize in hate speech do not reflect the mild and godly heritage of our tradition, which was founded by many victims of persecution and intolerance.
While I support the free speech rights of those who protest peacefully, I apologize to you and all those of your faith tradition who are being targeted by people who call themselves Baptists. It is a shameful thing.
J. Travis Moger