Rev. C. Welton Gaddy
John Wesley United Methodist Church
626 Savannah Hwy.
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 churchs 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 nations 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 Americans 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 faiths 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.