For more than 400 years, Baptists have urged religious liberty for all. The advocacy of Baptists like Isaac Backus and John Leland helped enshrine religious liberty rights in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A radical shift during an age of state churches, this move created the very environment for churches to flourish.
Yet, it seems significant that when James Madison and others inked out our guarantee of religious liberty, they put it in an amendment along with other essential rights: right to free speech, right to a free press, right to assemble and right to petition the government. These freedoms actually work together. We cannot enjoy true religious liberty without free speech and free press rights, as well as the rights to assemble and petition.
At Word&Way, this is particularly obvious. As a religious publication, our very existence requires not only religious liberty rights but also free speech and free press rights. Our right to communicate our faith as we feel led inherently needs those other two rights.
The same is true for churches or individuals. Imagine the government claiming you have a right to worship but not to print any materials at your church (like a bulletin or newsletter). Imagine the government saying you have the right to believe whatever you want but not to pass out evangelistic tracts or share your faith with people outside your church building.
In some countries, those scenarios are not hypotheticals. Look, for instance, at the situation in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin signed an anti-missionary law in 2016 that prevents evangelism outside of church buildings. Such a law not only violates religious freedom rights but also free speech and free press rights. As a result, authorities have prosecuted and fined more than two dozen Baptists and more than 150 others.
It should not surprise us that in the same nations where our Baptist brothers and sisters face violations of their religious freedom rights, the governments also restrict free speech and free press rights. Consider China, Turkey, Uzbekistan and many others. In Cuba, our partner publication El Mensajero saw their printer seized decades ago — an act that simultaneously restricted their religious liberty, free speech and free press rights. (More recently, they received permission to buy a new printer and we have partnered with them to make that purchase.) In Myanmar, two Baptist pastors who assisted journalists in documenting the military’s destruction of a church found themselves imprisoned for more than 15 months — a move that sent a strong message against religious liberty, free speech and free press rights.
Thus, Baptists should speak out not only for religious liberty rights but also for free speech and free press rights. And that means we should not condone powerful leaders who slander journalists and propose using the government to retaliate against media outlets. Journalists are not “enemies of the people.” Sure, journalists make mistakes (we are all human, after all). But media outlets seek to get the facts right and correct any errors. For Christian journalists, this commitment should be even stronger as we are people who follow the one who is not only the Word and the Way but also the Truth.
Unfortunately, rhetoric against journalists in the U.S. can hurt our Baptist sisters and brothers around the world. Already dictators seeking to limit press freedoms (in addition to violating free speech and religious freedom rights) are parroting the soundbites of our president. His words give dictators ammunition. Thus, we must speak out.
At Word&Way, we bring you real news that leads you back to the Good News. We remain committed to the essential rights of religious liberty, free speech and free press. And you can partner with us in that mission.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.