J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty
Text: Gen. 1:26-27; Gal. 5:1; Acts 4:18-20
This year we celebrate our 400th year of being Baptists -since John Smyth baptized himself and then others in 1609. These proto-Baptists were in Amsterdam, Holland, having fled England to avoid religious persecution at the hand of King James I, the man whose name appears on some of your Bibles.
Despite our astonishing diversity and historical disagreements on other issues, Baptists from the beginning have always fought the fight for religious liberty. At our best, we have taken seriously the liberty for which Jesus himself broke the yoke of slavery and set us free. This was our birthright in 1609, our battle cry today in 2009, and I pray, our legacy four centuries from now in 2409.
From jail cells in England, to stockades in Massachusetts Bay, to whipping posts in Virginia, Baptists have suffered and paid the price for religious liberty. We must celebrate our Baptist heroes and retell their stories if our commitment to religious liberty is to remain passionate and vital for generations to come.
§ God Bless Thomas Helwys! After leading a break-away group back from Holland to England (thus instituting another Baptist tradition: church splits!) he established the first Baptist church on English soil. Helwys then authored a cutting edge treatise on religious liberty, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612), and sent a copy to King James I. In his inscription, he wrote that the King was a mortal man, not God, and had no power over the souls of his subjects. For his trouble, Helwys and his wife Joan were thrown into jail. Helwys later died in Newgate Prison.
§ Hurray for Roger Williams! Called by some the “apostle of religious liberty,” Williams came from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. He preached “soul freedom” -the notion that faith cannot be dictated by any government authority, but must be nurtured freely and expressed directly to God. He advocated a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” The theocrats in Massachusetts were so outraged they kicked Williams out of the colony. He trekked to what would become Rhode Island and began what he liked to call the “livlie experiment” of religious liberty. There he founded the first Baptist church on North American soil.
§ We Virginia Baptists love to cheer on John Leland! An evangelist preaching in Virginia during the heady 1780’s, Leland boldly advocated religious liberty and the separation of church and state. He played a pivotal role in convincing James Madison of the need for a specific guarantee protecting religious freedom. Madison made good on his promise including these first sixteen words in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof.”
§ We at the Baptist Joint Committee revere J.M. Dawson, the first Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee. Dawson was instrumental in convincing the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 to adopt the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Article 18 of the Declaration proclaimed “the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion” as the aspirational goal for all humankind around the world. That language has informed almost every national constitution adopted over the past 60 years.
§ Today, it is altogether fitting that I mention W.W. Finlator- pastor, prophet, provocateur- one who was completely committed to the First Amendment and its protection for the rights of dissent. I remember fondly several phone calls that he made to me at the Baptist Joint Committee offering words of advice and encouragement. It was a thrill for me to have that one-on-one contact with him, even over the phone. One of his quotes I remember was that he would “rather have a non-religious president who treasures and understands the First Amendment, than an ardent churchman who is casual about it,” as reported in the News&Observer. Throughout it all, no one better exemplified the Baptist commitment to defending the rights of conscience in the second half of the 20th Century than Bill Finlator.
How critical for all people – not just Baptists, but all Americans-to know about this grand heritage of freedom. Our understanding of religious liberty involves no less than the freedom to worship God and to follow Jesus without efforts by government to advance or inhibit religion-someone else’s or even our own.
The freedom that we enjoy is biblically based. The scriptures make clear that God created us with free will. God’s decision to make human beings in God’s image necessarily implies the freedom on our part to say yes or no – to choose for or against a relationship with God. (Gen 1:27) For that relationship to be genuine, it must be voluntary and based on love, not coerced and based on fear.
The New Testament, too. Galatians 5:1, Paul writes “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Judaizers were attempting to require gentile converts to follow the Jewish law before becoming full fledged Christians. So, Paul was railing against attempts to deny freedom from theological and ecclesiastical strictures more than attempts on the part of the government to limit religious liberty. But, Paul’s clarion call to the Galatians has inspired generations of Baptist Christians to fight for freedom from government-imposed limitations on the free exercise of religion.
If Paul issues the call to freedom, Luke gives us a lesson on how that freedom is to be exercised. In Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested for preaching the gospel of Christ. The Sanhedrin – a high court with civic, as well as religious, jurisdiction over the country’s internal affairs- was clearly threatened by the success of disciples. The Sanhedrin admonished them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 4:18) But Peter and John repudiated civil authority because it sought to interfere with proclamation of the gospel: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20) The rights of conscience must take precedence over the demands of the governmental authority.
It is important to point out, however, that the freedom that we have, by virtue of creation of God and the liberation of Christ, is not unlimited. We are to avoid license as well as legalism. Paul continues in the fifth chapter of Galatians:
“Brothers and sisters, do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love, become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13-14)
Our freedom in Christ can never be separated from – and must always be limited by – the responsibility that we have to one another. Freedom and responsibility must always be held in tension; they are two sides of the same coin. As Bill Moyers has aptly put it:
“[Our Baptist beliefs]… do not make for lawless anarchy or the religion of Lone Rangers… They aim for a community with moral integrity, the wholeness that flows from mutual obligation. Our religion is an adventure in freedom within the bounds of accountability.”
There is another limitation of sorts on our freedom. We also owe duties to Caesar. Jesus himself affirmed this dual allegiance when he talked about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. And in Romans 13, Paul affirms not only allegiance to the state, but he plainly says that the authority of the state is divinely ordained. And if Paul’s teachings applied to the heavy handed Roman rule in the first century, how much more should they apply to us today living in a robust constitutional democracy? Yes, we Baptist Christians have a duty to be good citizens.
Thus, we can summarize the biblical teachings by saying that we are citizens of two realms-the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God. Yes, we are to “render unto Caesar” up to the point where obedience to Caesar runs into our fear of God. Then, as Peter and John demonstrated, the rights of conscience must take precedence over the demands of the state.
Article XVII of the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 (amended 1963) incisively captures the historic Baptist understanding of religious liberty and the proper relationship between church and state.
“God alone is Lord of the conscience… Church and state should be separate. The state owes every [house of worship] protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others… The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal….”
Thankfully, the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 did not change this article when it took a meat ax to others.
Although these lofty principles embodied in Article XVII remain unamended, they are often observed as much in the breach as in the following. Not just by fundamentalist Southern Baptists, but by the culture at large.
You know, I love living and working in Washington, D.C. I even enjoy driving to and from work – believe it or not. After 20 years I have yet to become jaded as I drive down Constitution Avenue past the Lincoln Memorial, the White House and the Washington Monument, and the Capitol to the BJC offices across the street from the Supreme Court. One thing that always captures my attention is the fact that the longest lines you see for tourists any place in town, including the Smithsonian’s, is in front of the National Archives. There is always a huge line to see the original documents of our nation’s founding: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I then think how peculiar it is that popular when so many people in our country either take our freedoms for granted, or don’t know much about them, or think we have too much freedom! For example, only 15 percent of the American public knows that religious freedom is protected by the First Amendment. A recent study showed that more people can name all five of the Simpsons than can name the five liberties protected in the First Amendment. About half the American public thinks that church-state separation is either a bogus concept or has been applied too rigorously.
The Baptist Joint Committee continues to educate about our tradition of religious freedom and to apply that heritage in the crowded intersection of church and state in contemporary American life. The BJC’s singular mission is “to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.”
We work hard to ensure that government maintains a healthy distance from religion. The theological principle of soul freedom-a God-infused liberty of conscience – and its ethical expression – religious liberty for all-are protected by these dual constructs of no establishment and free exercise, which are contained in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
These twin pillars of our constitutional architecture require government neither to help nor to hurt religion. Rather, government must be neutral toward religion, turning it loose to flourish or flounder on its own. In other words, government must accommodate religion without advancing it, protect religion without promoting it, lift burdens on religion without extending religion a benefit.
So, for example, the BJC supports the rights of students to pray voluntarily around the flagpole or during a neutral moment of silence at athletic events, but opposes prayers delivered to a captive audience by a state actor or over a state-controlled microphone. We support efforts to teach about religion in the public schools, but deny the right of public school officials to read the Bible devotionally or otherwise lead in religious exercises. We applaud tax exemption for religious and other non-profit organizations, but reject vouchers and other forms of governmental financial aid to support the teaching of religion. We recognize the obligation of churches and other religion bodies to provide social services to the needy, but dispute the propriety of subsidizing those ministries with government funds. We understand government may require churches to comply with reasonable building and safety codes, but reject attempts by zoning officials to micromanage church ministries or otherwise invade the autonomy of local churches. We believe in a generous exemption for the cause of conscience for health care providers, but not in a way that harms the health of third party patients. We affirm the duty of government to ensure the civil rights of all citizens while respecting the autonomy of houses of worship to govern their affairs differently.
In short, as Dean Kelley used to say, government may – and some times must – get out of the way of religion, but it should never get behind it and push. The best thing government can do for religion is simply to leave it alone. Eternal vigilance over the activities of government by the BJC and all freedom-loving Baptists is the best way to honor our Baptist heritage of religious freedom and to pass it on as a legacy for generations to come. May it be so for another 400 years, and more.