Good morning. My name is Doug Donley and I am pastor of University Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I have also been on the board of the Baptist Peace fellowship for the past six years. I’m glad to be here. I have the distinction of having been denied ordination twice because I would not say homosexuality is a sin. So I know that Baptists can be passionate about issues such as these.
Let me share with you a little bit of Baptist history and see if it can’t shed some light on this proposed constitutional amendment.
There was a time in our nation’s history that Baptists were a minority. Unlike the Congregationalists who had Connecticut or the Episcopalians who had New York or the Quakers who had Pennsylvania or the Catholics who had Maryland, we Baptists were on the fringes of the religious life of the colonies. We were relegated with other nonconformists to Rhode Island where we could do the least harm. But when it came time to ratify our constitution, Baptists stood up and said, what about us? What if we don’t want to pay taxes to the Congregationalist church? What if we don’t want to have our children indoctrinated with Lutheran theology at their schools? What if we didn’t see God as an extension of the state? So it was Baptists that insisted on the freedom of religion in the constitution. We wanted to make sure that no one spoke for us. This constitutional amendment limits the free exercise of our religion. It is the state telling us what to believe. Limiting freedom is antithetical to what a Baptist is.
Freedom is our lifeblood as Baptists. It’s part of our DNA. Limiting freedom like this amendment would do ought to make Baptists at least a bit uneasy. You know as well as I do that Baptists believe in freedom. I want to talk about four freedoms that Baptists hold dear and then you tell me if they lead you to believe that the state ought to have its hands in limiting the freedom for two people who love each other to marry. The four freedoms are soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and religious freedom.
First soul freedom. We believe that each person is a holy soul and has direct access to God. We don’t need an intermediary like a priest to give a blessing. Our souls are free. This means that each person has a right and a responsibility to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Baptists fought and died for the right to believe as they saw fit, which often meant rebaptizing people as believers, and doing so when they knew that it would be a treasonous act. Baptists have always been courageous and we take that from our soul freedom—knowing that God walks with us in our triumphs and our tragedies. That’s soul freedom.
Then we have Bible freedom. Each Baptist has the right and responsibility to interpret the scriptures for themselves. It makes no sense for a Baptist to parrot what someone else says if we have not done our own study. We are people of the book who take the Bible seriously. Seriously enough to look at it with a critical and inspirational eye. We expect there to be different interpretations of the scripture. But we don’t expect people to ignore scripture. Scripture is best used when we engage it in love and respect the freedom of others to interpret it differently. The word of God is not simply a book. It is this book passionately engaged. When people read the Bible with the Holy Spirit as the guide and the community as a sounding board, they find the word of God for their lives. Just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean you should believe just like me just because I said so. Make up your own mind. And respect the freedom of your sisters and brothers to disagree with you. That’s Bible freedom. A good Baptist will advocate for their interpretation of scripture and defend your right to interpret it differently. This constitutional amendment seeks to codify one interpretation of scripture. As such it is an unbaptist amendment.
The next freedom is church freedom. This grows out of soul freedom and Bible freedom. All of our churches are governed differently. Just as no one can tell another Baptist what to believe, no one can tell a Baptist church who to choose for its leaders, what kind of policies to adopt and who it can marry within its walls. We are free to make mistakes and do achieve great triumphs because of our freedom. Imagine if during the civil rights movement, Baptist churches needed to get permission from a larger body before doing their good work. The freedom of the local congregation is the genius of the Baptist freedom.
So, we have soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and finally religious freedom. It just makes sense that we ought to be able to freely practice our religion without the coersion of the state. Some early Baptists took their soul freedom and Bible freedom so seriously that they refused to join the military. They believed that they were part of God’s army first and foremost and would not shed blood for empire. So Baptist preacher John Leland made sure that religious freedom was part of our constitution. Hear what he said in 1790 at the birth of our nation: “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians." He wrote that in 1790. In a time when colonial states had religions, Leland wrote "These establishments metamorphose the church into a creature, and religion into a principle of state, which has a natural tendency to make men conclude that Bible religion is nothing but a trick of state."
So you see, Baptists are people who love people, who are people of the book, who love freedom. Baptists vote no on this amendment because it limits freedom. It seeks to codify one interpretation of scripture into our constitution. Whatever you believe about homosexuality, you have to agree that writing one interpretation of scripture is a very unbaptist thing to do.
We ought to be using our best energy to protect freedom, to stand on the side of love, to establish and support healthy families, to live as Jesus taught us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbor as ourself.
As the hymnwriter said, “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown standeth truth within the shadow keeping watch above God’s own.”
Sisters and brothers, as good Baptists it is our duty to protect freedom. For once freedom starts being restricted, it is a slippery slope to that leads to abuse and persecution. None of us want that. That’s why this Baptist will vote no on this unbaptist amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry. I encourage you to do the same.
Let me close with one more quote from John Leland:
"Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. 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, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinion." John Leland, "Right of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable By The Law," The Writings of the Later Elder John Leland, published in 1845.
I have been a pastor for 23 years. I have officiated at dozens of weddings over my career. Most of them have been opposite sex marriages and many have been same-sex marriages. Each time I preside at a wedding gay or straight, I find that my marriage to my wife is fortified and enhanced. Love begets love. Granting the freedom to marry the love of one’s life enhances love and stabilizes society. I stand by the freedom of those who love each other and who are committed to the sacrifice and gift of marriage ought to have that brave union recognized by the state.
I urge Baptists to vote no on this amendment. It limits freedom, but more importantly it limits love and commitment.