President George Maxwell Richards says if the country is not vigilant, citizens may find themselves having to defend against bigotry “that has taken hold in societies.” He said, too, that in T&T “we do not have a history of struggle for religious freedom, except in the case of Spiritual Baptists.” These were the sentiments expressed by the President in his message on the occasion of today’s Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day. Following is his message.
Today, the nation celebrates, once more, Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day, which was declared a public holiday in 1996. While this day is of special significance to Spiritual Baptists here, as is the year 1951, it should be of profound importance to the rest of the national community. This day is testimony to the unquestionable right of every citizen to practise the religion of his or her choice or to practise none at all. There are many things in our Republican Constitution about which we speak and, in the case of religion, about which we sing, but perhaps we are not as conscious of the rights enshrined as we ought to be. The celebration of Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day gives us an opportunity to bring to the fore, the undeniable human right to freedom of religion, in this country and everywhere else in the world.
In Trinidad and Tobago, we do not have a history of struggle for religious freedom, except in the case of Spiritual Baptists. I have seen no similar records regarding The Salvation Army, for example, of very different provenance. This should give pause for thought and cause us not to be complacent, harbouring a dismissive attitude that that was a problem for the Spiritual Baptists, which cannot be resurrected in respect of any other religion. Current events in different parts of the world emphatically tell us otherwise. If we are not vigilant, we may find ourselves having to defend ourselves against the raging bigotry that has taken hold in societies that have made accommodation for radical extremism, even in the name of democracy and freedom of expression.
Guarded utterances and what some may presume to be deserved contempt through silence, is the response of the majority, in the face of burgeoning fanaticism.
The history of the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago is a very useful case study. They were not prepared to suffer in silence. They lifted their voices as they worshipped at street corners, at riversides, in their homes and wherever else they were led. They were determined against loss of identity, choosing instead, loss of self, if necessary, as they pursued the transcendent. The lessons learned from their struggle should not be forgotten and indeed, should stand as a warning against prejudices that are allowed to flourish against human dignity and in this case, the rights of citizens. My very best wishes are extended to the community of Spiritual Baptists and to their families. For their tenacity, we owe the Spiritual Baptists a debt of gratitude. Their Liberation Day, which is celebrated today, endorses the right of every single one of us to choose and to pursue, in peace.