Religious freedom is a unique privilege. Many in our world today exist in countries without the guarantee of religious freedom. A great number of Chinese Christians worship "underground" outside the blessing of the communist government because the church sanctioned by the government is subject to government oversight. Christians in Muslim-controlled nations worship in secrecy or they are faced with martyrdom.
I think it is actually safe to make an argument that most Christians for the past 2,000 years have not lived with the privilege of religious freedom. Paul preached in the Roman Empire where the emperor himself was worshiped as god and Christianity was not widely tolerated. Early Christian apologists like Justin Martyr sought the freedom to worship Christ from the Roman Empire. After Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, it did not take long for Christian leadership to outlaw paganism. Even during the predominantly religious age following the Protestant Reformation, religious freedom was not prevalent. Catholics persecuted Protestants. Protestants retaliated against Catholics. Anglicans imprisoned Dissenters in England.
These events preceded the experiment of the United States of America. The founding fathers of our nation were products of the Enlightenment. Many of the founders were Christians while others were deists. However, one thing our founders got right was the experiment of religious freedom. The Bill of Rights is a distinctly American invention. Interestingly, the existence of religious freedom owes itself in large part to Baptists.
John Leland was a Baptist pastor from Virginia who believed religious liberty must be granted in this new country. He wrote to George Washington on the topic and advocated for religious freedom politically. Leland and other Baptists were so adamant concerning the new Constitution's lack of specificity on the issue of religious liberty that he organized Baptists against its ratification. Finally, Leland convinced James Madison, a representative from Virginia to make the Bill of Rights, specifically including religious liberty, a part of the new Constitution. Upon ratification, Madison introduced 10 amendments—which formed the basis for our current Bill of Rights. Leland argued:
"(1) that the rights of conscience are inalienable, not subject to either government permission or restriction; (2) that the establishment of religion by law always damages religion; and (3) that the real motives for establishment are not to benefit religion but to buttress the power of civil rulers and augment the purses of ambitious clergy."
We are living at a dangerous time in American history for religious freedom. Across the one nation on earth where religious freedom has been a given, it is now under attack. Christian bakers have been forced out of business for their refusal to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual couple. California is suggesting a law that would inhibit Christian colleges and universities from espousing their religious doctrines. The Virginia Governor recently called a religious freedom bill in his state an "oxymoron." A recent development in Iowa has the Alliance Defending Freedom lawyers filing a federal lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for censuring sermons concerning the biblical view of sexuality.
Lest we think this is merely an issue where Baptists are receiving the attacks, this issue has found its way into Baptist and evangelical discussions. If some politicians have their way, Muslim religious freedom may not be guaranteed. If other politicians have their way, Christian religious freedom may not be guaranteed. This development should not surprise us because the fact of "inalienable rights" depends upon a sovereign Creator to provide them. As a whole we have become a secular nation where God is non-essential or non-existent. A nation where the government is the sole provider of rights becomes a sovereign entity of itself and cannot hope to provide true freedom. True religious freedom can only be guaranteed where the people granting it believe there is a sovereign God who will judge everyone.
So where does this leave us? We have the following responsibilities regarding religious freedom and the contemporary situation:
- We must voice our defense of religious freedom in our current environment. Baptist pastors at the founding of our nation were seminal in the development of religious freedom because they took a stand and voiced their concern. We should be ready to engage the political process and use our voice to promote and proclaim the necessity of religious freedom.
- We must be cautious against standing for a political position that inhibits the freedom of someone else to worship (Muslim or not). Only the belief in a sovereign creator/judge is a solid foundation for providing religious freedom. God alone will separate and judge the righteous from the unrighteous. We must continue in our heritage of advocating religious freedom for all.
- We must prayerfully be prepared to stand for truth should we lose our religious freedom. Thankfully, Christian history is full of examples where men and women preached and lived biblical truth in a contradictory culture. Should our freedoms be taken away, we answer to our sovereign Creator first, not our government.
Dr. Chris Hefner is the senior pastor at Wilkesboro Baptist Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
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