Talk on Religious Freedom at Interfaith Event

June 3, 2007

I am particularly grateful to be part of this interfaith discussion about religious diversity and liberty in America because these issues are at the heart of my tradition as a Baptist and of the challenges of contemporary political debate in America.

A brief review of Baptist origins will explain why it has had such importance to us.  We Baptists trace our roots back to those English churchmen and women who considered the Reformation of Henry VIII not protestant enough. These were dubbed “Puritans” since they wanted to “purify” the church of lingering “Romanism,” taking their cues primarily from the church reforms of Calvin.  Some Puritans gave up hope of reforming the church of England from within and began meeting for worship elsewhere, hence their name “Separatists.”

James I came to the throne determined to suppress religious dissension. This led to an exodus of Separatists to Amsterdam where for a while they were able to worship without repression. When alliances between the Dutch and James I made this liberty tenuous, one group under the leadership of William Bradford became “pilgrims” to the New World. In 1620 the Mayflower famously landed them at Plymouth to practice church as they pleased.

Another group led by Thomas Helwys and John Smyth under the influence of Anabaptists adopted adult baptism in 1609.  This we can say is the beginning of English Baptists, 400 years ago this year. We can also say that the issue was not so much the mode of baptism, as it was the nature of the church as a voluntary association of believers.

[It is widely misreported that the Baptist distinctive is baptism by immersion, but in fact the first Baptists baptized by pouring, not immersion.]

Thomas Helwys led the group back to England, where they continued to face suppression.  In 1612 in  a tract on religious liberty addressed to King James, Helwys criticized Puritans, Separatists, the Church of England, and Catholics. But he made it clear that he was not trying to provoke the king against the Catholics. He wrote:

“For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures.”[A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, 53.]

For this cheeky tract Helwys was sentenced to prison where he died at age 44.

This Baptist position, that a prince had no authority over his subjects’ faith, was something of a novelty in the experience of modern Europe. For the most part there was an intermingling of church and secular authority after Constantine. The Protestant reformation threw all of this up in the air. The solutions (Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and of Westphalia in 1648) which ended the bloody decades of wars over religion in Europe would establish the principle that each state would have the religion of its prince (Cuius regio, eius religio). In effect each state would have its own established religion. This may have been a step toward peace, but at the expense of liberty.  Against this enforced uniformity Baptists put forth the separation of church and state.

Many today assume that separation of church and state is a ploy of secularism. This is to misread history.  The separation was based on an appeal to scripture. The apostles in the book of Acts were arrested for preaching a resurrected Christ. They were told by the religious/political authority to desist or face imprisonment.  “‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).  In Hebrew scriptures there are numerous confrontations of political powers and religious consciences: e.g. Moses and Pharaoh, Jeremiah and Zedekiah.  The burden of the first half of Daniel is this confrontation. Neither the fiery furnace, nor the lion’s den nor bureaucratic pressure deterred these Hebrews from practicing their faith.  Daniel and friends were examples that you could be a good citizen without practicing the state religion. But if they had to choose they had the courage to suffer rather than to stop practicing their faith.

Ironically and sadly, those who have experienced religious oppression, when given the power of governance, can quickly become oppressors of other religious practice.  As I said, Puritans left for the New World to practice their faith as they saw fit. But they were not willing to grant that freedom to dissenters in their own colony. As so often happens, people want freedom to practice their own faith, but once they have that freedom, they are less willing to grant the same right to other faiths.

When Roger Williams (1600-1685) arrived in 1630 in Massachusetts Colony,  he turned down appointment to a pulpit citing an unwarranted  overlap of church and state. Williams asserted that the civil magistrate may not punish any sort of “breach of the first table [of the Ten Commandments],” such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters. The government can enact regulations respecting the second tablet, but must be hands-off with respect to the first tablet.  He called such freedom to religious opinion “soul liberty.”   He wrote, “forcing of Conscience is a Soule rape.”

[Williams wrote in Bloody Tenet of Persecution:

“Fifthly, all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.
“Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.
Seventhly, the state of the Land of Israel, the kings and people thereof in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor president for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.
Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.]

When he persisted in this notion, Williams was exiled from Massachusetts and left to found the Rhode Island colony and the first Baptist church in America.

Robert Wrench writes in “Church History 13: Roger Williams”:

“In 1787 twelve states accepted the constitution; one did not. The one hold-out was the smallest and weakest of them all, Rhode Island; and the issue was religious liberty.

“The Rhode Island delegation pled, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, and not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favoured, or established by law in preference to others.”
“For three years the national union remained incomplete and without a constitution. Then Thomas Jefferson spoke to the delegates in support of Rhode Island: “By the Constitution you have made, you have protected the government from the people, but what have you done to protect the people from the government?” President George Washington recommended a bill of rights, and James Madison guided it through Congress. Supported by Virginia, Rhode Island was finally heard, the Bill of Rights was adopted, the union was complete.”

We could go on to recall that in 1651 the city fathers of  Boston laid 30 lashes on the bare back of a Baptist who dared to invade their Puritan territory.  In 1659 the first of four Quakers was hanged in Boston Common.  In 1707 a Presbyterian minister was thrown into a  New York jail for the crime of preaching his version of the Christian gospel. Henry Dunster (1612-1659), first president of Harvard, began to preach against infant baptism and in 1653 refused the rite to his fourth child and as result was forced to resign  after twelve years in that leadership, turned out of his home and “cast out into the winter, and died within five weeks.”
In the Virginia colony the Anglican church was the official church. The 1606 charter creating the Virginia colony required that all ministers preach Christianity that followed the “doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within the realme of England”—in other words, the Church of England.  In 1768 in Spotsylvania VA Baptists were thrown in jail for refusing to stop preaching. Now there wasn’t any law that said you ought to throw a person in jail for preaching, but there were laws against disturbing the peace, and that was the charge on which they went to jail.  Baptists were accused of child abuse, Baptist marriages were not recognized.  Persecutions included (actual quotes from court records):
“pelted with apples and stone”
“ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men”
“commanded to take a dram, or be whipped”
” jailed for permitting a man to pray”
“meeting broken up by a mob”
“arrested as a vagabond and schismatic”
“pulled down and hauled about by hair”
“tried to suffocate him with smoke”
“tried to blow him up with gun powder”
“drunken rowdies put in same cell with him”
“horses ridden over his hearers at jail”
“dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about”
“shot with a shot-gun”
” ruffians armed with bludgeons beat him”
“severely beaten with a whip”
“whipped severely by the Sheriff”
“hands slashed while preaching”

The Great Awakening changed much of this. These revivals popularized personal choice as the entry to church membership, and Baptist among others thrived in the resulting climate. Diversity became a fact that would not go away.

Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame, and  for whom this school is named, was concerned that the state needed to insure uniformity of religion in order to maintain cohesion.   Five years before the Bill of Rights was passed Patrick Henry tried to get the  Commonwealth of Virginia to enact a bill that stipulated that  “the Christian religion shall in all times coming be deemed and held to be the established religion of this Commonwealth.”  Many were pleased with his bill.  (Since Virginia by that time had so many pesky Baptists – and others – that they couldn’t make the Anglican Church the official church, at least they could declare that  Virginia would forever be a “Christian” state.)  But Patrick Henry’s bill never came up for a final vote.  Why?  Because, among other things, Virginians realized that  “the state would [then] have the obligation to examine the beliefs of every church to determine which churches were really  ‘Christian’   …”.

[Dan Day, “America’s First Freedom” quoting from Edwin S. Gaustad’s   Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: A History of Church and State in  America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999,2003), p. 23.]

James Madison won election to the Virginia ratifying convention Constitutional in 1788 to the First Congress after committing to John Leland that he would support Baptist interests in a Bill of Rights.  Without his pledge to John Leland to put forth a provision for the separation of church and state, Leland would not have marshaled the support of Baptists and without this support Madison would not have been elected.  It might be said that this provision of our constitution is the result of a backroom deal Baptists had.

[See So Help me Godthe Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State, by Forrest Church, pp 318-322]

John Leland in “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable”(1791) claimed that since every person must give an account to God, each should therefore be free to serve God in the way which best reconciles to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, it should control them in religious matters; otherwise, government should let all persons be free.

[Charles Deweese, “Doing Freedom, Baptist Style,” based on  H. Leon McBeth (ed.), A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 179.]

Baptists in Danbury Connecticut wrote Jefferson in October 1801 about their concern that as Baptists in their state, “what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” Jefferson’s famous reply New Years 1802 supported them. He wrote,

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

The greatness of the American achievement is that it enshrined an absence of coercion in all matters of faith.

But that does not mean that America could be what it is if it were a nation of purely secular people.

Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young American republic and published Democracy in America, two volumes that remain one of the best summaries of what makes our nation’s experiment a success. There are two themes in his works that pertain to this discussion. First his distinction between democracy and liberty.  Democracy or Equality, he felt, was the inevitable modern trend leveling of humanity, spreading rights to all, giving all an equal say.  But democracy will not automatically protect the rights of the minority. A democracy could impose the will of the majority on a objecting minority.  In other words, democracy by itself may become an enemy to liberty. This is why it is more appropriate to call America a liberal democracy,  which means that fundamental rights or liberties of the citizens are built into the legal structure of the regime. These rights usually include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

But even if liberties are granted in constitutions, that alone is not sufficient to create a nation of vibrant freedoms. Which brings us to the second insight, namely,  that the political realm rests upon mores, values, virtues which are part of the fabric of society. In America these mores are generated by associations of all kinds: churches, families, benevolent societies, fraternal organizations, community building projects.  Through the home and schools people are tutored in personal values and standards; through banding together in organizations for a common project or cause they learn to cooperate to get things done. As he saw it, the American experiment worked because of the quality of the people who came into politics with values and experiences that were formed prior to their political involvement.  America worked not simply because it had a careful constitutional document, but because its people had values. He wrote,“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”  Tocqueville saw that what made religion so vital and energetic in the states was it dwelled in this realm beyond politics and government management, it was independent and self-reliant. It was the very fact that they lay outside the functioning of government that gave them life and interest.  If a movement cannot persuade others to join or to sympathize, it will wither away. Neither force nor outside funds can issue in honest belief. Faith must be freely owned or it is not faith.

“America is…still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.”

“Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.”

On the steps of the US capital, May 16, 1920, George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas delivered an address on Baptist stance:

Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience. They have forever been the unwavering champions of liberty, both religious and civil. Their contention now, is, and has been, and, please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty. Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to tolerate. Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle. Toleration is a gift from man, while liberty is a gift from God. It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe. God wants free worshipers and no other kind.

A believer can assert she has the truth without needing to impose it on others for two reasons. First, that I see the truth gives me no warrant to assume I see all that is true.  Truth may be absolute, but my human grasp of it can never be complete.
Second, force will not bring another to share my faith, regardless of how true it is. In the end I must rely on softer measures–  reason, imagination, persuasion, example– all of which takes place in freedom.
A dogmatism which refuses to listen is either an attempt to push down its own misgivings or a refusal to love my neighbor as myself.  Either way it easily leads to violence.

It is not accidental that Scripture tells us the first murder was over the jealousy that God honored a different way of worship.
Religious liberty is a form of loving our neighbor as ourselves, which, Jesus said, is the twin of  loving God with all we are.

The challenge to separation of church and state in America in our day is that some religious groups are anxious for government funds and some secularists are anxious to suppress all faith talk in the public square. Noah Feldman I think offers the proper solution no money and no coercion.
As regards coercion:

“Ultimately, the nation may have more success generating loyalty from religiously diverse citizens by allowing inclusive governmental manifestations of religion than by banning them.” Do not suppress the expression of personal faith or absence of faith in the public square.

And as regards money:
“All attempts to use government resources to institutionalize religious practices countermand the American tradition of nonestablishment, grounded historically in the belief that government has no authority over religious matters. When government pays for social programs through the rubric of charitable choice, the programs must not be ones that rely on faith to accomplish their goals — or else the government is institutionally sponsoring the religious mission of the church in question.”

It may be that some expressions of faith will not admit of such respect of other faiths or such willingness to talk and listen, but for Baptists this is the heart of our understanding of humanity in the light of the revelation that lights our way. We hold it not as a matter of convenience but as a matter of principle and truth.

Carlo Carretto, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, finds his little Algerian Muslim friend, Abdaraman, crying. When Carlo asks him why he is crying, he learns that Abdaraman is distressed because Carlo will not become a Muslim, and if not, he will go to hell. (“Christian Mission: A Case Study Approach” American Society of Missiology Series, 66f).

So, Abdaraman walks with me to the lonely place.  The sun is setting and the air is fresh, just right for walking. We always have many things to tell each other because we love each other very much. Every morning I find him waiting for me before the small retreat until I finish my meditations. Often we take tea together and he tells me he likes the bread I make.  He always has an appetite, but he never asks for anything: I must intuit his desires.
This evening he is serious and answers with difficulty my questions.  I can tell he has something important to tell me but he doesn’t dare. …
“What’s the matter, A., this evening. Why don’t you talk?”
“Have you not eaten your ‘couscous’?”
“Did your father whip you?”
“Did the fenek escape from its cage?”
“Talk to me, A.; open your heart to your friend father Carlo.”
A. broke into tears ….
“All right, A., what’s making you cry?”
“Father Carlo, I’m crying because you do not convert to Islam.”
“Oh, I exclaim, and why should I do that?
“A., I’m a Christian and I believe in Jesus. I believe that God created the heavens and the earth as you do and that our prayers go to the same Heaven because when it comes to gods, there is only One. Your God is my God. It is he who made us, feeds us, and loves us. If you do your duty, do not steal, do not kill, do not speak falsely and follow your conscience, you will go to paradise, the same paradise to which I shall go if I do what God commands of me. Now cry no more.”
“No, no,” cries A., “if you do not become a Muslim, you will go to hell like all the other Christians.”
“Well, now that’s nice, A.! Who told you that I’ll go to hell if I do not convert?”
“The teacher of my school told me that all Christians go to hell and I don’t want you to go there.”
We’ve arrived near the chapel of solitude and A. stops. He’s never come any closer.  He has always stopped about ten steps from the building and for all the gold in the world he would not enter it as if inside there was some mysterious devilry forbidden to young Muslims.
The love that he has for me…and it’s a lot, has always hurled itself against this wall which divides us and this evening has actually taken on the terrible name, “hell.”
I say to him: “No, A., God is good and he will save us both; he will save your father and we will all go to paradise. Don’t believe that just because I’m a Christian I will go to hell anymore than I believe you will go there because you’re a Muslim. God is so good. Perhaps you did not understand what your teacher meant; perhaps he said that bad Christians will go to hell. Don’t be upset; go home and say your prayers while I say mine, and, before you finish, tell God, as I will tell Him, “Lord, may all men be saved, go…”  I sadly entered the small chapel of mud, built by Charles de Foucauld himself, who wished to be called Little Universal Brother, dying here betrayed by the ignorance and fanaticism of the sons of the same tribe to which Aleck and A. belong.
But this evening it will be hard to pray!  What a storm of thought this little friend has stirred in me.
Poor little A.!  He too a victim of fanaticism of the same sort found among the so-called “men of God,” religious men who would  send half of mankind to hell just because they are not one of them!”
How painful is all this!  How could it happen? That the thread of love that unites me to my brother is broken by the current “zeal for God!” That religion, instead of being a reason for union should become a trench of death or at least of un-confessed hatred. It would be better not to have a religion to divide us.  Better to grope in the dark than have such a light!


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