Thursday, July 9, 2015

Celebrating our religious freedom
by David R. Currie

(EDITOR'S NOTE: David R. Currie served as executive director of Texas Baptists Committed from 1987-2009.)

The wisdom of our Founding Fathers
The U.S. Constitution mentions religion only once, in Article VI, paragraph 3:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
That is a pretty straightforward statement by our Founding Fathers. They clearly did not intend for religious faith, in any form or fashion, to be required for serving in elected office. They did not form America as a Christian nation. Were they influenced by Christian values? I’m sure they were, but they clearly did not want to establish an official state-sponsored religion in America.

To further clarify this, they included, in the 1st Amendment, two religious liberty clauses – known as the establishment clause and the free exercise clause – consisting of sixteen words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In my opinion, these are the most important words ever written and adopted by a government in the history of the world. For me, these words are what make America – America.

If every government would adopt these words and faithfully practice them, wars would virtually cease, as most wars result from the attempt by one religious group to impose its faith on others.

Our Founding Fathers knew this and founded America as a secular nation, something for which all Christians should thank God. As Thomas Jefferson said, ”History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

Being a secular nation gives Christians the freedom to exercise our faith without government support or interference, as long as we do not seek to impose our faith on others. This freedom resulted in a country in which the Christian faith was robust and growing until some religious leaders in the second half of the 20th century banded together in an attempt to gain government support for the practice of their brand of Christianity. Many Christians swallowed whole the myth that Christian values could be legislated into people’s lives without the power of the Holy Spirit. This was and is foolish thinking.

Current events & the 1st Amendment
So let’s examine two current news items in light of the words of the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling on Ten Commandments monument at State Capitol
Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a monument promoting the Ten Commandments must be removed from the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol building. This was great news to me as a Christian. Why? Because religious symbols and words on public property violate the spirit of the 1st Amendment prohibition against the state establishment of religion. Thankfully, the Oklahoma Constitution has a similar prohibition on which the state Supreme Court relied for its ruling, denying the use of public money or property – either directly or indirectly – for the “benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.”

Public buildings are paid for by taxpayers of all faiths and no faiths. To promote any religious teaching on public property is to violate the U.S. Constitution.

If you walk into my office today, you will be greeted by a plaque with The Lord’s Prayer on it. I am free to display that plaque on my private property; to deny me that right would violate my freedom to exercise my religion. I am a private citizen. I can put whatever I want on my private property, as can any person of any faith. That is freedom. If I want to display a Ten Commandments monument in front of my building, I can do so. It’s my private property.

But government property is a different matter. People of all faiths – and people of no faith – must be treated equally, according to the Constitution. I wish every government followed our great American example.

U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage
Now how does religious freedom figure in the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Constitution requires that persons of the same sex be given the same right to marry as persons of opposite sex?

I am a Baptist minister, not an official of the government; therefore, I can decide whose marriages I will perform, and the Constitution protects my right to make that decision.

In my opinion, the Supreme Court decision, with which I disagree theologically, was the right decision constitutionally. People have the right to live differently than I do, with values different than mine, as long as they do not hurt others. That is what freedom means.

Thus, government officials should be required to follow the Constitution and perform these marriages if asked. County clerks should be required to issue a marriage license to any couple – same sex or opposite sex – of legal age. It is the law. If you cannot – in good conscience – follow the law, then resign; your personal religious freedom does not give you the right to discriminate as a public official.

The same thing applies to me as a businessperson. I cannot refuse to sell someone a house on the basis of his or her sexual orientation any more than I can refuse to sell someone a house on the basis of the color of his or her skin. If I owned a bakery, for example, I should not be allowed to hide behind the 1st Amendment for the purpose of discriminating, no matter how deeply I believe something is right or wrong.

Sin in our country is nothing new
Finally, I just have to get off my chest how offended I am as a Christian at ministers today who are shouting at the top of their lungs that “America is turning its back on God and we are going to be punished.” This is nonsense, because we have always struggled to live up to our faith and had “our backs turned on God.” For over 80 years, we as a country allowed persons to own other persons and treat them like property. My ancestors, three of whom fought for the Confederacy, probably held these convictions as “good” Baptist laymen. I do not know whether they owned slaves, but I do know that many did and picked who of their “property” to breed in the same way that I pick which bull to mate with which cows on my ranch. We and all nations have always been made up of sinful people, and still are.

God has never been pleased with all of the actions of any country and never will be. We are all sinners and incapable of pleasing God perfectly, despite our best efforts, but we must strive to overcome our natures and treat all persons with love and grace, for that is the heart of the Gospel.

Freedom worth celebrating
What we truly can celebrate every July 4 is the religious freedom we have as Americans that has kept us from killing each other over religion for nearly 250 years. That is a truly remarkable thing in the world today.

What we can celebrate is the freedom to proclaim our faith and be protected in so doing as long as we do not try to enforce our beliefs on others by power of government.

What we can celebrate is that this freedom has led to many individuals truly having a personal relationship with a living God, people who are striving to make our world and country a truly more loving and caring community.

What we can celebrate is the wisdom of our Founding Fathers in separating government from religion so that we might all be free to believe as we so choose.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

We've lost a Baptist giant - James Dunn

Tonight, just as I was getting ready to do my final proofreading of this week's issue of TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup, I received an email telling me that James Dunn had passed away.

James was my friend, and I had the privilege in recent years of serving alongside him on the T. B. Maston Foundation Board of Trustees. Long before we got to knowing each other, James had been a longtime friend of my dad, Jase Jones. They had both received their doctorates in Christian ethics under Dr. Maston and had worked together, along with other students of Dr. Maston, to form the T. B. Maston Foundation in the late 1970s. James and my dad also formed a great mutual admiration for each other. I can't count the number of times that James said to me, jabbing that bony index finger for emphasis, "There would be no Maston Foundation without Jase Jones!" Daddy felt the same way about James.
Aaron Weaver, Bill Jones, and James Dunn at 2012
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting in Fort Worth

Long before James was my friend, he was one of those Maston "giants" I had so deeply admired when attending those early Maston Foundation dinners in the late 1980s & early 1990s, when my dad was chairing the Foundation. James Dunn, Foy Valentine, Jimmy Allen, Bill Pinson (and, of course, Jase Jones) and others . . . I would hear them speak at those dinners about Dr. Maston's influence on their lives and ministries, and I would marvel at their courage in standing firm in the face of the slanderous attacks being leveled at them at that time by those who had taken control of the Southern Baptist Convention and would soon exercise that control by slashing the ethics departments at the six SBC seminaries, including Dr. Maston's beloved Southwestern.

James Dunn, as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) was as much the object of those slurs, slander, and outright hatred as anyone, because he stood against the tide of those new SBC leaders who had surrendered to the political right-wing agenda designed to make this a Christian nation by force. James wouldn't stand for anyone forcing their beliefs on others. He often said, "Ain't nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to believe," and he took that stand not just for himself but on behalf of ALL people.

James is one person who is truly impossible to replace. Even in the face of the health problems he encountered in recent years, every time I saw him, he exerted more energy than anyone in the room. He was a force, always a force. His first love was Jesus, and his love for Jesus shone through everything he did, especially in his love for people. He was a people person, and yes, he loved his enemies as he loved his friends.

I'm grateful that I got to visit with him one last time. Just over three weeks ago, I called him to talk about the upcoming T. B. Maston Foundation Award Dinner this fall, at which we'll honor Bill Pinson with the T. B. Maston Christian Ethics Award, an award that James received at our 1995 dinner. We had a great visit over the phone that day.

I'll miss his energy, I'll miss his encouragement (he was a relentless encourager), I'll miss his courageous and prophetic voice. But I'll be forever grateful for having known him and for the legacy he has left to Baptists and Christians everywhere, as well as to others for whose religious liberty he fought relentlessly. It seems somehow appropriate that this stalwart advocate for religious liberty died on July 4. So, after all, did Thomas Jefferson (in 1826), who penned the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in his letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association.

He is with the Lord now, but his voice is still with us - and will remain so - through the many who have felt his influence and passion. Thanks be to God!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Remembering Phil Lineberger
by David R. Currie

(EDITOR'S NOTE: David R. Currie served as executive director of Texas Baptists Committed from 1987-2009.)

My friend Phil Lineberger is now with the Lord. I miss him as I miss my other friends I talked to so much while serving as executive director of Texas Baptists Committed: John Baugh, Herb Reynolds, John Petty, and of course, my mentor Phil Strickland. I wish I could seek their counsel on many occasions. A part of me feels lost without them.

I am so grateful I still can call Ron Cook, Bob Stephenson, David Sapp, Charles Wade, Bill Jones, and Bill Bruster from my TBC days. I have been blessed to have friends believe in me through the years (and I could name so many more).

Phil Lineberger’s death is especially sad, not only for how it occurred, but because he is not replaceable (just like the others mentioned above). He was truly a unique gift from God to all who knew him.

When I think of Phil, I think of LEADERSHIP. He was a gifted leader but showed it in unique ways, peculiar to his gifts. Phil led with laughter. His memorial celebration was tremendous . . . we laughed half the service, just as we laughed half the time we were around Phil. But Phil used laughter to bring us together, to lead us forward, and to unite us around our purpose and our goals.

He had a magnetic personality but, unlike some who I feel use their tremendous personal gifts to build their own kingdoms, Phil used his gifts to build God’s kingdom. It was never about Phil, it was about the Kingdom of God. In many ways he was permanent co-chair of TBC for the 22 years I served there, even if he didn’t always have that title. He was engaged; he cared; he gave of himself and his gifts to our common cause.

And Phil was the same person in private. One of my favorite memories is when Phil needed a ride to DFW airport after a Baptist meeting. Loretta and Mother (Mary Jim) were with me. Mary Jim said fine, “but we have to stop at Cavender’s in Arlington and get David some clothes. He needs a new sport coat and boots.” The trip suddenly became something special, as Phil took over the task – as he put it to me – of “cleaning you up—making you presentable.” Phil was in charge – new shirts, sports coat, boots; in typical Phil Lineberger fashion, a shopping trip became an adventure to be experienced and treasured, when we could stop laughing enough to shop.

Phil also led through his courage. I am sure he never asked the question so many did during the battle to save the BGCT, which was “what might this cost me?” He opposed the evil of fundamentalism from the very beginning, simply because he knew it was a perversion of the Gospel of Christ. Not taking a stand was never an option for Phil. The fundamentalist agenda was clear to any who had eyes to see, and it destroyed the Southern Baptist Convention as we knew it. He would not straddle the fence, either, when it came to saving the BGCT and our institutions and ministries. He never considered shrinking from that fight. He was a courageous leader.

Finally, Phil was a true leader because he empowered others to serve and lead. True leaders bring out the best in those around them.

When I spoke at Phil Strickland’s funeral, I talked about the gift Strick gave so many of us when “he believed in us when we couldn’t even believe in ourselves.” Phil Lineberger was the same way. He was my friend. He believed in me, supported me, encouraged me, and made me want to do my best because of his faith in me. When folks lied about me, I never had to worry that I would need to call Phil and say, “This isn’t true, you know.” Rather, he would be the first to call and say, “hang in there, I know this isn’t true.” True friends believe in each other. They empower each other. They encourage each other. Phil was a leader who made all those around him better.

I will always miss Phil. But when I think of him, each time ends with a smile and a laugh just like he would want it.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Remembering a Good Friend and Bright Leader - John Petty, by Phil Lineberger

(reprinted from the May 4, 2011, issue of
TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup)

Remembering a Good Friend and Bright Leader - John Petty

Phil Lineberger 

by Phil Lineberger

Pastor, Sugar Land Baptist Church;
and Vice-Chair, TBC Board of Directors

 

The mantle of leadership fell comfortably around the shoulders of John Petty. He was well-educated, with a bright and inquisitive mind. He was a caring and engaged minister to his church members and to the wider Baptist audience. He had a strength of will and an ability to make wise and informed decisions. John's sense of humor put people at ease in his presence. He studied and applied himself to the practice of preaching.

John Petty
John Petty

 

Because of his God-given abilities and his concern for Baptist principles, John was selected for leadership at a young age. In every leadership capacity, John served well. We saw and admired the gifts and commitment of John Petty.

 

What we didn't see was the darkness of depression that was gradually overcoming this young leader's mental and emotional capacities. Slowly but surely, this disease of depression - along with the long-term chronic stress of ministry - overcame John's will to live. He was being changed in ways that he alone sensed. It was as Paul stated in his first letter to the Corinthians: "a glass that one sees through darkly or a mirror with a poor reflection." John came to a point where his mental, emotional, and spiritual comprehension was distorted beyond human understanding. He no longer knew how much he was loved and needed by his family, his friends, and God. He could no longer feel the warmth and affection of others. He could no longer respond in a healthy, natural way to those who loved him most. He knew only that the painful struggle he was enduring had to end.

 

The last time John and I were together was at the BGCT meeting in McAllen, Texas, in November 2010. I encouraged John to go with me so that we could spend some time together and be encouraged. He had shared his struggle with me several months earlier. As we sat and talked, I realized that the John Petty I had known for many years was no longer there. John looked through me and past me as we conversed. It was as if his mind was traveling beyond our time to some distant place and some other destination. What I didn't comprehend was the depth of depression guiding John's thoughts and emotions.

 

John Petty is gone from this earth but very present in the minds and thoughts of so many. The distance between this world and the next is not as far as we might think. The wall between the two is not as thick as we might imagine. John Petty still has a relationship and influence in the lives of those he loved and served.