Jehovah’s Witnesses: Unlikely Ally of Religious Liberty

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Washington, D.C. – On this Sunday’s “State of Belief,” The Interfaith Alliance Foundation’s show on Air America Radio, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy explores the faith and politics of Jehovah’s Witnesses and discovers that not all theological conservatives are theocrats.  The director of a new PBS documentary Knocking, Joel Engardio joins Rev. Gaddy to discuss his film about this often misunderstood religion.


Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves Christians and hold conservative positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but they are not like most members of the Religious Right.  Although they spread their message door-to-door, Witnesses do not believe in using the coercive power of government to impose their beliefs on the rest of society.


“It is an interesting way how a group can exercise the First Amendment, and free speech and say a message on your doorstep.  But if you don’t agree with that, it ends there,” says Engardio.  “They don’t go behind your back and amend the Constitution or legislate their beliefs and force you to live a certain way, which some other religions try to do.  To me it is an interesting way in how personal freedom and religious liberty can peacefully coexist.”


Although they are apolitical, Jehovah’s Witnesses often initiate litigation to protect free speech and the separation of church and state.  They base this activism on the precedent set by Saint Paul who battled his way through the Roman courts.


For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses brought a case before the Supreme Court protesting a West Virginia law that forced school children to salute the flag each morning.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they should only salute God and that saluting the flag is a form of idolatry.  The Court ruled in favor of the Witnesses in the case, West Virginia v. Barnette, which was decided at the height of World War II.


Engardio tells Rev. Gaddy that people do not need to feel afraid of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  “If you are a gay man or a woman seeking the right to choose your reproductive freedom, the Witnesses may not agree with you, but they are not a threat,” he says.  “They’re only speaking a message on your doorstep.  But they have fought for the right for all of us to speak a message on any doorstep.”


Also on the show: Professor Susan Friend Harding, author of The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics; Journalist Jeff Sharlett.