Rev. C. Welton Gaddy
April 14
7 p.m.
John Wesley United Methodist Church
626 Savannah Hwy.
West Ashley
(843) 766-5596
www.jwumchurch.org

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
remembers the moment he felt the ground shift beneath his feet and suspected
his life might soon take a radical turn.

Gaddy
was a doctor of divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and
minister at the huge Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Sitting on
the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee in the early 1980s, he was
stunned when the committee voted not to coordinate with the National Council of
Churches on a piece of business as mundane as property insurance. Gaddy
remembers being shaken by his church’s rejection of any cooperation with the
NCC.

“What
this said to me was that the executive committee of my convention did not want
association with other Christians,” Gaddy said last week in a telephone
interview from California. “It brought a kind of exclusiveness that I thought
was not consistent with the Bible and not consistent with the Baptist faith.”

What
happened that day in 1981 was part of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC as
they led the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to secede from mainstream
American Christianity. Through the 1970s and ’80s, fundamentalists conducted an
almost Stalinesque purge of moderates from positions of authority in the
convention, its churches and seminaries.

Gaddy
eventually left the Broadway Church in Fort Worth and took the pulpit at the
new but much smaller Northminster Baptist Church, in Monroe, La. Northminster
was a new congregation, composed of moderate Baptists who, like Gaddy, did not
like the fundamentalist tilt of the SBC and left the convention.

In
recent years he has been doing far more than tending his flock in Monroe. He
has authored 20 books and is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious
news outlets, including “State of Belief,” a regular feature on Air America
Radio. He has been a leader in numerous Christian ecumenical organizations,
including a stint as president of Americans United for Separation of Church and
State and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance.

This
is the circuitous road that will bring Gaddy to Charleston on Monday evening to
address Americans United for Separation of Church and State, hosted by John
Wesley United Methodist Church.

As
its website reminds all who visit: “The Interfaith Alliance (TIA) is a
nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the positive and
healing role of religion in the life of the nation and challenging those who
manipulate religion to promote a narrow, divisive agenda. With more than
185,000 members drawn from more than 75 faith traditions and 47 local activist
groups throughout America, TIA promotes compassion, civility and mutual respect
for human dignity in our increasingly diverse society.”

Gaddy
is still a Baptist, but no longer with the Southern Baptist Convention. The
catalyst which led him to break his lifelong ties with the SBC also drove
former President Jimmy Carter to leave the convention: the 1998 resolution
calling for women to “submit graciously” to their husbands.

Today
Gaddy and Carter are members of the Alliance of Baptists, a 21-year-old group
of former Southern Baptists who seek a more moderate theology and doctrine. But
Gaddy is not interested so much in theological hairsplitting with the SBC. As
executive director of TIA, he is a messenger, traveling the length and breadth
of the country, warning Americans about the threat to First Amendment
protections embodied in the modern Christian right-wing movement.

“We
are seeing the cost of not educating the American people about religion and
democracy in our country,” Gaddy said. “We have recently witnessed a sea change
in the way the Oval Office thinks of religion in society and, I fear, the way
the Supreme Court interprets the role of religion in its relationship to
government.”

Gaddy
said the most visible collusion between church and state today concerns the
so-called “faith-based initiatives,” whereby religious organizations seek
government money to provide traditional government services such as education,
drug rehabilitation and welfare. Religious organizations jeopardize their
integrity and their freedom in going after federal funding, he said.

“You
know what happens when a local government or private organization takes federal
money,” he said. “They leave themselves open to federal regulations and those
regulations always come, sooner or later.” Most threatening to religious
institutions would be civil rights regulations, which bar discrimination in
hiring based on — among other things — religion.

TIA
has spoken out against recent efforts by the religious right to
institutionalize sectarian dogma. When Republicans in Congress sought to outlaw
gay marriage with a constitutional amendment two years ago, Gaddy said in a TIA
press release: “The Federal Marriage Amendment discriminates not only against
people who want to be married, but also against the faith traditions that deem
same-gender marriage to be consistent with their religious creed … By passing
the FMA, Congress is taking away our religious liberty, and when one American’s
religious liberty is violated, all Americans’ religious liberty is in
jeopardy.”

Americans
are more religiously active than any other industrial society. There are more
churches and houses of worship, more denominations and belief traditions than
anywhere else in the world. This profusion of religious activity, Gaddy said,
is a result of the freedom Americans have to practice their religion without
interference or favoritism on the part of the government.

TIA
has given itself the role of traffic cop at the broad intersection of religion
and politics in America. It monitors endorsements, voter guides and such
activities from the pulpit and critiques the way politicians court or denounce
religious groups. Any election year is busy for TIA; this one seems to be
busier than most, due to the presence of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney,
a Mormon, in the early GOP primaries.

When
the ministers of large Southern Baptist congregations in Dallas and Southern
California used their pulpits to denounce Mormonism as a cult and Romney as a
false Christian, TIA took the incidents as teachable moments. In press
releases, it criticized the ministers and reminded readers that churches enjoy
special status in this country, based in part on the understanding that they
are not to be involved in partisan politics.

Likewise,
when Romney made his address on religion last December, declaring that there is
room for all faiths in a pluralistic democracy and that his Mormon faith would
not affect his political judgment, he was praised by TIA.

“This
speech is exactly the kind of conversation that we would hope candidates
running for president would have with the American people on the role of faith
in public life,” Gaddy said at that time.

When
he speaks in Charleston Monday evening, Gaddy will use the opportunity to
remind listeners that religious liberty and political liberty are not one and
the same, but they mutually dependent on one another. “I think that freedom is
faith’s best friend,” he said, “and with freedom of religion we secure the
vitality of our democracy as well as the integrity of religion.”

  The
Rev. C. Welton Gaddy will speak at John Wesley United Methodist Church, 626
Savannah Highway, at 7:00 p.m., April 14. For more information, call (843)
766-5596 or visit www.jwumchurch.org.