National Edition

Baptist-Catholic university partnership forges religious liberty alliance

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Byron Johnson, left, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, looks on as Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center, talks on Friday, May 9, 2014. The two schools have formed a partnership to help promote and expand religious freedom.

Barbara L. Salisbury, For the Deseret News

What sounds like the beginning of a bad joke actually has a hopeful ending: An evangelical Protestant and a Roman Catholic walk into a conference room ... and two major universities join together in an effort to preserve religious liberty.

The burgeoning partnership between Byron Johnson, who directs the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and Tom Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, is bringing together two separate camps in Christianity that, for centuries, had often opposed each other.

Baylor in Waco, Texas, often billed as the world’s largest Baptist university, and Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Jesuit and Roman Catholic university, weren’t direct rivals, but their sponsors, historically, were. For centuries after the Protestant Reformation, cooperation between Catholic and Protestant groups was often viewed as aiding and comforting the ecclesiastical enemy.

But in the face of increased threats to religious liberty at home and abroad, a joint venture between the two institutions isn’t a punchline, it’s almost a necessity. Whether it’s the plea of a Christian-owned firm to be allowed its conscience in providing health care benefits to employees, the continuing debate over same-sex marriage’s religious liberty implications, or the persistent global imbalance of religious rights abuses in some parts of the world, the question of religious liberty cuts across theological and denominational borders.

"There's plenty of data to indicate religious liberty across the globe; the loss of religious liberty is on the upswing," said Johnson, who described himself as an evangelical Protestant.

Farr describes the current global religious climate "a political crisis of religious freedom. I think most Americans are simply not aware of what’s going on 'out there,' so to speak. ... They’re only episodically aware of the terrible suffering of Christian minorities and some Muslim minorities, and Jews and others out there, Tibetan Buddhists and Baha'is, and all the other minorities around the world. They’ve really suffered terrible harm frequently, sometimes on a daily basis."

Friendship spawns alliance

So how do people from a Catholic university and a Baptist one end up partnering on religious freedom? It starts with friendship, both men said. They met while serving on an advisory board at the Templeton Foundation.

"We became friends just because of so many common interests," Farr recalled. "It wasn’t too long after that that we began to say, 'You know, we should be cooperating together on the issue of religious freedom, because we share this passion for it. We’re from two different parts of the Christian tradition, but we come together on many things, and this is one of them.'"

Farr said informal talks on developing a joint program began in 2013 and the formal partnership "was sort of signed, sealed and delivered in early 2014."

Johnson recalled, "The more time we spent together, and the more we began to compare notes, and, (while) I haven't done research in the area of religious liberty, per se, but a lot of the work I do, studying prison reform, and the faith-based programs and the efficacy of the faith-based programs, where they're allowed to flourish and maybe where they're not allowed to flourish, what are the implications — those are all somewhat religious freedom issues."

Thus far, the joint venture — which doesn’t have a formal name — has organized two major events. A December 2013 conference called "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," was held in Rome, where the range of presenters included Baylor president and former U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr.

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