With great sadness, I write to share the news that Interfaith Alliance’s former longtime-president, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, has died at home in Monroe, LA, at the age of 81. Welton was a beloved leader, and his life should serve as an inspiration to everyone who cherishes both religious freedom and democracy. In addition to my own note, I have asked my predecessor, Rabbi Jack Moline, to share his words of condolences, which are included below.
Welton’s journey took him from being a rising leader in the Southern Baptist Convention to one of the most respected voices seeking to ensure the first amendment’s promise extends to all Americans regardless of faith or belief.
It does not go without notice that we are remembering Welton just as the LGBTQ+ community is celebrating Pride Month. Welton wrote about full inclusion and dignity for LGBTQ+ people long before many other religious leaders. Across so many areas, Welton used his platform to project a vision for America that was inclusive of different beliefs and respectful of every individual’s inherent dignity. He was unwilling to accept that any religious tradition in this country should take precedence over another.
Most importantly, Welton stood as a source of inspiration to many. He showed us that it was possible to hold on to our faith while also fighting for the rights of others who did not share our religious tradition.
Over the course of seventeen years, starting in 1997, Welton led Interfaith Alliance and established it as one of the leading advocates for religious freedom. Under Welton’s leadership, “interfaith work” was not about a bunch of people from different faiths coming together just for the sake of optics. It was about building relationships between communities so that together we could have an impact on the critical issues facing our nation.
Among Interfaith Alliance’s many accomplishments under Welton’s leadership were his incisive paper making a case for marriage equality from a faith perspective; his passionate advocacy challenging antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry and other forms of hate targeting religious minorities; and the protection of the vital boundaries between religion and government as he pushed successive administrations from both parties to avoid unnecessary entanglements.
And so many of us feel extremely fortunate to have him as the host of our weekly radio program State of Belief, which he launched in 2006 and continued hosting until just last year, despite having retired. The first time I heard Welton on State of Belief, I was just out of seminary, and I was so grateful to hear his booming voice speak to my values and shared understanding of the positive role faith can play in the world when balanced with appropriate boundaries, unlike so much of what was on the airwaves.
Part of what made Welton unique was that as he did all of this for Interfaith Alliance, he never stopped being a pastor to his community at Northminster Church in Monroe, LA. Welton would say that having one foot in church life and another in the advocacy space gave him a perspective that strengthened his work in both spheres.
Born in Paris, Tennessee, Welton received his Bachelor of Arts from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, before attending the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he received his master’s in theology in 1968 and his Ph.D. in 1970. Welton held pulpits and teaching positions across the southern United States before becoming a member of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. He left the SBC in the early 1980s as it took a drastic turn to the right. Going forward, he aligned himself with the Alliance of Baptists, which he helped found, and eventually served as the president of its board. Rev. Gaddy increasingly focused his ministry on the relationship between faith and public life. He joined the board of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and served as its president before leaving to lead Interfaith Alliance in 1997. There are few people that have made such a lasting impact on America, and I continue to be in awe and so thankful for Welton’s life in the ministry and as a leader in our democracy.
Welton is survived by his wife Judy, his son James and his two grandsons. Welton’s son John Paul died in 2014. We will have additional information soon on our plans to honor Welton’s legacy at Interfaith Alliance.
On behalf of myself, Rabbi Moline, the board and the staff of Interfaith Alliance, I offer our deepest condolences to Welton’s family, his friends and all who were touched by his advocacy and his ministry.
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
President and CEO, Interfaith Alliance
I loved Welton Gaddy. That puts me in the company of a lot of people in this world, which is poorer for our loss. There will be formal and informal tributes to a man who championed every child of God, and they will likely focus on the extraordinary difference he made in the lives of people of faith and no faith, including those who profoundly disagreed with his outlook. But for me, the memories I will cherish the most are the conspiratorial conversations we had about making the world a better place for all. His charm, his intelligence, his integrity, his wit, his courage – they all came through in those conversations. What I would give to hear him say one more time, in that unmistakable drawl, “I’ll tell you what…” And then, tell me what.
It was my privilege to know the man, not just the pastor or the public figure. He was just like you and me, celebrating the abundant blessings of his life and struggling with its challenges. He rose to greatness because of those experiences, not in spite of them. And that means we can, too.
In my Jewish tradition, we respond to a loss like this with the prayer, “May his memory be a blessing.” It is and will continue to be.
Rabbi Jack Moline
President emeritus, Interfaith Alliance