On May 16, 1920, on the east steps of the capitol building in Washington, D.C., a historic speech was delivered to some 15,000 people, many of them Baptists.
George Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, defended religious liberty for all in 1920 while the church's present pastor, Robert Jeffress, ignored it. (Right photo: FirstDallas.org)
The speaker was George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas.
His speech was titled "Baptists and Religious Liberty."
"Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience. They have forever been the unwavering champions of liberty, both religious and civil," said Truett.
"Their contention now, is and has been, and, please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, [a person] is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices."
Truett said, "Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty... Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle. Toleration is a gift from government, while liberty is a gift from God."
The Dallas pastor added: "It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel [people] to conform to any religious creed or form of worship."
On Oct. 7, 2011, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., another historic speech was delivered, ultimately to millions because of television and Internet coverage.
While the distance between the capitol building and the Omni Shoreham Hotel is approximately four miles, these two speeches are a million miles apart.
The speaker at the Omni Shoreham, remarkably, was also the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Robert Jeffress.
While introducing Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit, Jeffress said Perry was a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, unlike another candidate he did not name.
Jeffress later said he believes voters should choose Perry over Romney because Romney is a Mormon and Mormons are "not Christians." Jeffress also called Mormonism a "cult."
The Dallas pastor told the Star-Telegram what he meant by the word "cult."
"I meant a theological cult, not a sociological cult like the ones led by David Koresh or Jim Jones. What I can say with certainty is that Mormonism is not Christianity," said Jeffress.
In an interview on "Hardball with Chris Matthews," when asked about the U.S. Constitution's ban on a religious test for office, Jeffress said the government cannot impose a test, "but you can impose any kind of test you want to."
"[T]o your question, is there a higher authority than the Constitution for me as a Christian, as a pastor, the answer is yes – it is the Bible," he said.
Apparently, 91 years and a million miles away from where Truett defended religious freedom for everyone as a gift of God, Jeffress managed not only to ignore our Baptist heritage of liberty but also to forget Scriptural teachings about loving our neighbors.
Rob Sellers is Connally Professor of Missions at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas.