The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy might seem like an unlikely champion for interfaith activism and for the separation of church and state. Raised in what he describes as a staunchly conservative Christian household, Gaddy completed his undergraduate education at Union University, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and earned a doctorate from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Gaddy became a prominent member of the SBC’s national leadership, which included a term on the convention’s executive committee (1980-1984).
And yet for Gaddy, it was the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC that launched his career as a leading voice among progressive Christians calling for the inclusion of people of all faiths, and of no faith, in the American political process and against what he calls the “prostitution of religion for the advancement of partisan politics.”
In 1998, Gaddy became the president of Interfaith Alliance, which bills itself as “the only national interfaith organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of both religion and democracy in America.” In 2008, with the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Gaddy co-authored First Freedom: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy also hosts a nationally broadcast weekly radio program, “State of Belief,” and serves as senior pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
At the end of 2014, Gaddy will retire from Interfaith Alliance. He recently spoke to R&P about his years as president of Interfaith Alliance, a position that Gaddy describes as having two roles. “The first is to help people to understand that you can be very religious, but you also have to be understanding of people that are different from you. And the second is to teach Americans that the role of the government is not to support one particular religious view, but to give all Americans the right to practice their religion.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. –M.P.M.
R&P: What is the theology behind your interfaith work?
WG: Theology is very important to me as a foundation for ministry and also a foundation that provides the kind of security to think broadly and deeply—and to have the right to change your mind.
You will understand where I’m coming from better if you know that I grew up in a very conservative home. My parents were wiser than they were smart in terms of formal education. But they did understand the importance of love and honesty and trying to apply faith to every dimension of life. My move—a theological move an institutional move away from fundamentalism, personally and institutionally—was grounded in those original values. They weren’t divorced from them.
The further I got into ministry, the more I realized that there was a scarcity of real honesty, within both the church and the government. That was important to me because I understood that religion and government are the two institutions that I consider the most influential in relation to our lives together, whether in a small community or in the global community.
R&P: Your upbringing and formal theological training come out of a tradition that many consider intolerant of other faiths and explicitly and openly engaged in the political process to make the government reflect its particular conservative social values. How has this background affected your own understanding of the proper relationship between church and state?
WG: I was very fortunate to be at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when we had top-notch scholars that did not want to indoctrinate but instead wanted to educate their students to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusions. But even in that institution, the two issues that, in my opinion, now have to be at the center of theological education were on the periphery.
One is how the individual and the house of worship relate to government. And the second is how we relate, personally and institutionally, to people who are of different religions and people who hold to no particular religion. And so it was imperative for me to come at both of those questions with a level of honesty that made me very uncomfortable sometimes in my thoughts because they were not just different, but were often contradictory to what I had grown up believing.
R&P: You often speak critically of the SBC’s turn to fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s. How did that experience affect your later advocacy for interfaith work and for the separation of church and state?
WG: I was right at the center of leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention when the fundamentalist takeover of that convention started. Much of the change that has taken place in me regarding the theology that I embrace, as well as the theological principles that influence my decision making and actions, grew out of the disappointment that came with what happened in Southern Baptist life.
But then the surprise, the joy of freedom [that I found] in a larger community, changed my mentality and worldview. My work at Interfaith Alliance grew out of that change in theology and the broader vision that showed me that most religious institutions, like other institutions, have their own selfish purposes, and sometimes even divert from their mission in order to preserve the institution.
The realization that the SBC was not going to be my home was directly related to my decision to pastor a congregation that was not within that convention, and to embrace a profession and leadership in an interreligious community. And it was directly related to what I saw happen in the name of religion that wasn’t religious.
R&P: Religion was thus a cover for a political agenda?
WG: Yes, and let me be very specific. The issues of divisiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention were always portrayed as theological issues. In reality, they were issues of politics, power, and economics.
For a long time, there was talk about the inerrancy of the Bible being at the center of the controversy in the SBC. That was a flag under which a power-based, independent, fundamentalist movement worked in order to take over the convention. Not necessarily to make it a new and revived kind of Baptist institution, but to make it an institution that reflected the politics of the leaders of the movement and handed to them the power to try and shape that convention, and ultimately to shape the nation, according to their politics.
I remember one of the first speeches that I gave after coming to D.C. [in the late 1990s] was a presentation to Republicans. I remember saying to them, “the same people that stole my spiritual home in the Southern Baptist Convention are the same people that want to steal this nation and your party.”
Today we’re seeing changes to the nation’s perception of what counts as religious liberty, which is much more about politics than it is about religion.
You know, when I was growing up, if you asked what does it mean to be a Christian, the answer to that was, you believe in Jesus as the revelation of God and commit to following him with devotion in both belief and behavior. Now the measurement of religious authenticity in much of Christianity is not about that confession, but about where you stand on abortion, where you stand on gay marriage, where you stand on the role of women in the church, the method of interpretation you use while studying the scripture, whether or not you believe that members of the GOP community are the people of God, or whether they’re sinners that God looks away from, and whether or not government money should be used to advance religion. Those are the issues now. So, being a Christian—and I’m talking about this because I am a Christian—being a Christian now has a political interpretation of it that I never knew in the simplicity of an earlier stage of my life.
R&P: So these fights over theology in the SBC, for example the inerrancy of the Bible, weren’t about Bible. The Bible became a proxy fight for politics?
WG: That’s exactly right. The fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention used the Bible as a tool for organizing a political movement and claiming authority for it. I grew up believing the Bible. I have, from day one until this day, taken the Bible very seriously. My understanding about interpretation of the Bible has changed, but not my respect for the authority of the Bible. I think what has been most helpful in that pilgrimage has been understanding the nature of the literature of any biblical text, which ought to determine the way in which we interpret that text.
In a study of the Bible, you find passages that textually don’t make any sense in relation to the whole sweep of biblical truth. When that happens, you have to measure that text over and against texts that seem to be out of step with others.
Let me just say to you, I have struggled with passages of the Bible. My own changes in thought about race, about homosexuality, about government, all of those changes have come as a result of not only looking carefully at what was around me, but also studying the Bible, which I have always considered an authority.
R&P: So, are there particular passages that you find not to fit into the Bible’s comprehensive truth? Are we talking about Leviticus, for example?
WG: Leviticus is a good illustration. Most people had never read Leviticus until LGBT movement started. Often in speeches to LGBT groups, I thank them because they’ve done more for the popularity of Leviticus than any other group in the history of the world.
But interpretation of Leviticus within the larger context of the biblical message is important. I think the same is true in understanding key passages in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was written in a very specific historical setting, which highly influenced some of the passages that we read. What we have in the fundamentalist mission, the phrase, “No one comes to the father but by me,” on the lips of Jesus, has perpetrated a kind of exclusivism in Christianity that I find without credibility when looking at the ministry of Jesus. One verse does not a Bible make.
We’re seeing right now the danger of “proof-texting” because not only have many people used it to prove Christianity, now proof-texting is used to peddle hate against Islam. This whole controversy about whether or not Islam is a religion of peace is based on people citing out of context various parts of the Qur’an. One Sunday in the church that I pastor, I started a sermon by reading several passages from the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, intermingling with those some verses from the Qur’an. And the people couldn’t tell the difference.
My point is that I respect the authority of sacred scripture, but I also know that sacred scripture has been manipulated to make people comfortable with and even to justify behavior that is anti-biblical in every sense of the word.
R&P: Let’s talk about leadership. You talked recently to Paul Raushenbush on your radio show about the legacy and import of the Social Gospel, with which Paul is intimately familiar. What does it mean to be a religious leader both inside the pulpit and away from it, in the city streets, for example, as the Social Gospelers would teach?
WG: I’ve always liked as a definition for preaching that of Phillips Brooks, “Preaching is truth through personality.” I think there cannot be an inconsistency between what a person says in the pulpit and what a person does in the community. When you get that separation, you have a sense that the faith is not for all of life, but for only part of life, and that’s not, of course, the case.
I found that one of the best decisions and the most freeing decisions that I ever made was when I decided to be the preaching minister in a congregation while at the same time being the leader of a national interreligious agency. I take into the pulpit the great debates that go on in the national and international community as well as what’s happening in our own local community.
R&P: And yet when it comes to politics, at least formally speaking, you believe that there should be a bright, red line?
WG: I do not believe that you can be faithful to the Christian tradition and not be interested in and involved in politics. But, there is a difference between doing partisan politics and what you do in the pulpit and what you do in the community.
Philippians (1:27), it says, “Let your conversation be worthy of the gospel.” The word there is polis, the word from which we get politics. So I try to talk about the politics of the gospel. And the politics of the gospel are all about justice and equality, and breaking down barriers in the community, and seeing to it that people are not hungry, and that we are working for peace. And those are the politics to which I’m called.
But the demarcation has been greatly blurred in the last years of our nation. I do not want any politician telling me what I need to believe or how I need to pray or to what source I should turn for ultimate authority. I don’t trust any politician to tell me that. In my experience, when religion and politics, especially partisan politics, become totally entangled, religion loses. And politics wins.
R&P: Recently, you’ve been particularly critical about how religion has influenced politics, in particular the politics of the Supreme Court. You’ve called the Hobby Lobby decision a “grave error.”
WG: I think that the Hobby Lobby decision was a sea change moment in America’s dedication to religious freedom as historically interpreted in the Constitution. What we’re seeing now is one case after another of individuals or corporations saying that their religious freedom is being denied because they can’t practice something that they’ve been practicing or they can’t refuse to do something that they’ve been refusing to do. This is out of step with the historic interpretations of religious freedom.
R&P: And yet you have not only been critical of the Religious Right’s entanglement with politics.
WG: From day one, I personally, and the agency that I have led, opposed faith-based funding from the government, and certainly a faith-based office in the White House. And my hope was, and it was perhaps an unrealistic hope, that President Obama would simply do away with the faith-based office in the White House.
I’ve done enough testimony in congressional hearings with people who worked in the Bush Administration and otherwise to know that there is widespread support to do away with the faith-based initiative. This is the kind of hope that Obama gave us with his initial run for the presidency that has not come to fruition. And so we now have a very confused situation that has worsened the entanglement of religion and government.
We now have government funding religious ministries and, at the same time, we have religious organizations lobbying the government successfully to be exempt from regulations that were born out of religious freedom concerns. That’s one of the sea changes that got us to Hobby Lobby.
R&P: So when you say government funding of religious ministries, do you mean, for example, drug and alcohol facilities that are explicitly faith-based?
WG: I’m talking about what most houses of worship would call social ministries. And they could be related to a drug rehab program or they could be a children’s education program like Head Start.
Here’s the rub. I am for all of those programs. I want to see to it that organizations that work on feeding hungry people have the money they need to do that ministry. But I don’t want any of it done in a way that compromises the integrity of religion or further entangles religion and government to the point that the government has a reason and claims a right to intrude on the religious house of worship or organization involved.
And that’s what we’ve seen. As early as I can remember, in my Baptist tradition, we said government regulations follow government dollars. That’s exactly what happens. The faith-based office, especially during the Bush Administration, became a political tool. It was always interesting to see that some of the biggest grants from the faith-based office went to some of the most politically close districts in election years. We’re not naïve enough to think that there weren’t politics in that.
R&P: One of the things that struck me listening to your radio show is that you highlight a very pluralistic religious calendar, from Jains to Jews to Orthodox Christians to evangelicals to Catholics. What purpose does highlighting this diversity serve?
WG: For one thing, it is a decision rooted in my approach to Christianity. I view Christianity as a religion of respect and reconciliation and a religion that points towards cooperation for the common good. Secondly, I’m aware that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world. And I am convinced that the religious vibrancy in our nation stems from the religious liberty clauses in the Constitution that brings respect for all religions. I want listeners of “State of Belief” to know that we can’t exclude anybody from the religious groups in our nation. And we have an obligation to know something about them and to give them at least respect to do what they do. And one small way to do that is to know what’s going on in various religious communities across the country on any given day.
R&P: I’d like to raise a question of a different kind of diversity, that is of the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in American politics, in American culture, and especially in American houses of worship—efforts that you have championed. Take the rainbow flag: For many, seeing that flag flying on a church door is a sign of inclusivity. But for folks who are honestly grappling with the question of marriage, it could feel like a sign that they aren’t welcome. Does the Religious Left need to be careful about the limits of its own inclusivity?
WG: That’s a great question. And it’s one that I appreciate because as a minister, this question has been a source of controversy for me because of my position on LGBT issues.
If you look at the church where I’ve been for 22 years now, you will not see a rainbow flag. And my strong conviction is that it is a redundancy to have to prove that a church is inclusive. I think we have to start with the assumption that a church is inclusive, so the people that come to that church come with interest in being recipients of ministry. I would no more ask a person wanting to become a member of our church if they were gay or straight than I would if they were a Democrat or a Republican or if they were affluent or poverty-stricken. The church is for persons.
This is relevant to what you’re saying. I have always argued against the idea that Interfaith Alliance be considered a part of the Religious Left, in opposition to the Religious Right. The things that are wrong with the Religious Right remain wrong if they are done in the same way by the Religious Left. What I’m interested in is an open-minded approach to religion that is willing to embrace distinctions within various congregations without those distinctions becoming barriers for cooperation.
Let me talk specifically then about marriage. Marriage is one of those issues in which neither the leaders [on the left or right] of the government have been as honest as they out to be. The same is true for many religious leaders. Marriage is, in the United States, like it or not, a civil issue. It is a religious issue for a lot of people, but marriage is totally a governmental issue. I cannot perform a wedding ceremony that’s recognized by the state unless I get a license from the government. And so if marriage is a governmental issue as it is, then every person in this government ought to have the same rights.
I remember when we were dealing with the hate crimes bill, and I had lots of calls from people about [Interfaith Alliance] supporting the hate crimes bill. I remember the day the vote was taking place, and a guy called me, and he was just outraged, and I said: “Listen. This bill will not affect your right to hate. You still have it. They can’t take it away from you. You just can’t go into your pulpit and preach a message based on hate that would cause someone to want to go out and kill someone they disagreed with.” And it’s the same thing that I say to people who get so upset about same-gender marriage. That is a civil rights’ issue. If we’re not going to give the same rights to every citizen in the nation across the board, then we’re not being true to our Constitution.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t still preach against that kind of marriage, if you want to do it. That’s your prerogative. But the prerogative that you claim for your pulpit, you can’t enforce on the nation. That’s the way I’ve come at that, and I understand there’s differences in opinion on it, as you would expect there would be. But we’re a nation that can manage differences of opinions, and we can still work together on our democracy.
R&P: Can politicians learn anything from the model of civility and respect that you and other interfaith leaders foster?
WG: One of the great joys of this job at Interfaith Alliance was getting to know Walter Cronkite and getting to be one his close friends. And I remember one day Walter and I were talking about the low levels of trust in Congress, when they hit under 10 percent of people trusting them. I said what do you think should be done about that, and he said, “Well, it would help if they would just tell the truth.”
Now, I go back to that because I still believe that is essential. You cannot tell me that the partisan votes on issue after issue actually represent the opinions of every member of Congress. I want to elect people to office who will tell us what their values are and then be honest about how they apply them.
Sure, they can learn something important by looking at the interreligious community, but they have also got to get off the high horse of thinking that every political decision is also a moral, religious decision. That’s what’s caused the hard-lining on both sides of the aisle. Unless we can return to the basic definition of politics, which is the art of governing, and work on that art without bias and without prejudice and with honesty, knowing that compromise is the way forward, then the gridlock will not stop. I think there’s more to be learned about our historic, American tradition than there is to be looking at the interreligious model.
R&P: I know that you have to run and we’ve gone well over our allotted time. I thank you, sir.
WG: You’re welcome.