This week we will celebrate our country’s birthday, our 243rd, to be exact. Quite an accomplishment for a still, somewhat fledgling nation. However, it’s a day to be thankful that we’ve made it to this point, in spite of the difficulties that have assailed us, both in the past and currently. As Christians and most especially as Baptists, we can truly appreciate religious liberty, with the freedom individually to worship or not worship, as we choose. Our church was recently visited by someone whose job it is to ensure that religious freedom is protected. Jennifer Hawks, Associate General Counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, came and made a presentation during Sunday School and spoke briefly again in the service. For those of you who missed Jennifer’s talks, or may be unfamiliar with the BJC, it had its earliest beginnings in 1936, as the Southern Baptist Committee on Public Relations. However, in 2004 the name was changed to the current one. This organization works tirelessly to ensure that our nation’s principle of separation of church and state is maintained and that religious freedom is available to all people. Its offices near our nation’s capitol allow the BJC direct access to our law-makers. Preventing laws that either discriminate against religions or that would support only certain religions or a State religion is the focus of this important Baptist body.
Since we live in a free country and we have freedom of religion, why should this be a concern to us? The answer is the lessons of history, and more specifically, the lessons of our Baptist history. We know ( or we should know ) that Baptists, in our earliest days, were the most persecuted denomination in this country. The established state churches were Anglican and Congregationalist, and their partnership with the government gave way to laws demanding taxes be paid to these specific churches by every citizen regardless of whether they attended. Any religious ideas that differed from those of the established congregations were rebuffed with fines, imprisonment, and even death sentences. Baptists worked hard to see that individual religious liberty and separation of church and state were both written into our Constitution. The results of their work can be read in the First Amendment, “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The first part of this is called the Establishment clause and the second is the Free Exercise clause. The importance of this amendment should never be taken lightly.
In those early colonial times, the few favored churches were given power by the state to coerce and control people who had different opinions and beliefs. With that power, these favored churches were free to believe as they wanted, but they were not disposed to extend that same freedom to others. This is the injustice that the Establishment clause terminated. Whenever the church attaches its coat-tails to the state, the church is diminished in its ability to truly be a house of God. It ceases to point to spiritual truths and usually becomes mired in the secular world of greed and power.
Free Exercise Clause
As to the Free Exercise clause, any citizen in this country has the right to practice his or her religion, free of coercion. By the same token, no one can be forced to attend any church. Baptists traditionally have taken the stance that we do not have to understand, appreciate, or agree with someone’s religion but we must respect his or her right to practice it! This is one of the most essential Baptist beliefs – the priesthood of the believer. It isn’t just the law, it is behavior that honors the gift God gives to each of us: choice. We are to share our beliefs with others and act in ways that honor God, but we are not allowed to make anyone else’s decision about God for them.
I hope that on our Independence Day, you will be reminded of all of our freedoms and will be grateful that we live in a country that honors our individual choices in matters of faith.