Affirming Religious Liberty from a Baptist Perspective

By Rev. Jason Smith, Arkadelphia, Arkansas
Affiliated Alliance of Baptists

In January of 1636, ardent preacher and religious leader Roger Williams was expelled from Plymouth, Mass. for propagating, according to the Puritan General Court, “erroneous and very dangerous opinions.”[1] His restless spirit challenged the Puritan authorities as one of the first advocates for religious liberty in the New World. Williams would carry his cause across the border of the early settlement to found the colony of Providence, creating the First Baptist Church in America. From this moment forward, Baptists have been staunch advocates for religious liberty in the United States, proposing that church and state should live and breathe freely without interference from the other, and promoting a country where individuals should have the liberty to follow their freedom of conscience.[2]

Baptist Characteristics: Unbound Liberty

While Baptists have stayed away from establishing any sort of formal creed or set of principles, certain core characteristics weave throughout Baptist history and have a profound effect on church polity and general theological convictions. Walter Shurden identifies several important characteristics in The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. The first and core Baptist affirmation is the idea that every individual has the liberty and authority to read, interpret, and learn from scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.[3] In the spirit of the Reformation, Baptists assert that biblical interpretation allows every individual to discover personally the Gospel message.

A secondary idea that surfaces as a core principle of Baptist tradition is the concept that each individual has “soul freedom” or “freedom of conscience.” Individuals have the freedom to trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance and challenge authority. Jesus challenged individuals to consider personally who they believed him to be.[4] Individuals are encouraged to take personal responsibility for themselves, including their confession of faith and decision to be baptized.[5] Each person has unique experiences and ideas about faith that make them distinctive, and Baptists have long recognized that every individual has dignity and worth in deciding their destinies and personal paths of salvation. This freedom is rooted in the idea that each person is under the direct authority of Jesus Christ, an individualism that places all Baptists at the same level of subservience to Jesus Christ.[6]

A third principle that unites a majority of Baptists is the idea that each individual church is a unit with rights and responsibilities of governance and polity. The autonomy of the local church is a critical part of Baptist identity, allowing congregations the opportunity to follow the creative path of the Spirit as a community of faith.[7]

The fourth idea numbered by Shurden flows directly out of the first three freedoms: religious liberty. The concept of religious liberty is embedded in the Baptist tradition and forms part of the essence of faith for Baptist believers. Most Baptists share the unifying belief that only Jesus Christ can stand between an individual and their access to God. It is from this idea of that the concepts of “Bible freedom,” “soul freedom,” and “church freedom” inspire the idea of “religious freedom.” Everything that Baptists believe comes out of this freedom concept, the autonomy of the individual, the autonomy of the local church, and the assurance that the church and state remain separate entities for both to prosper. Baptist history is one of pursuing and ensuring these freedoms and liberties for all people.[8]

Baptist Connections to Religious Liberty

A careful study of Baptist history unearths a unique perspective on religious liberty. While scholars and academics debate as to which tradition Baptists originated, the best theory is that Baptists emerged from separatists and formed a second branch of the English Reformation.[9] As Congregationalists who dissented from the Church of England, Baptists would eventually differentiate themselves into ‘Particular Baptists,’ who were inspired by the Calvinistic theory of predestination that would later be developed, and ‘General Baptists’ who believed that all were capable of earning salvation.[10]

As a student at Oxford in the 1620’s, Roger Williams followed his convictions and joined the Puritan movement in England, believing in the reformation of the Church of England, and pursued his calling and ministry to the Plymouth Colony in 1631. While in Massachusetts, Williams began to have grave disagreements with the theocratic Puritan system in Colonial America and with government-sponsored religion in general. In seventeenth-century New England, Puritan colonies maintained a power structure with religious and civil authority. Church attendance was compulsory, and failure to attend could result in a fine of five shillings or time in jail.[11] But Williams challenged this authority with the idea that faith should not be dictated by the state.[12] He argued strongly from a Biblical perspective that the Puritans did not have authority over the religious beliefs of individuals, citing instances in scripture of faithful followers suffering under civil authorities for living out their freedom of “conscience;”[13] from Daniel being cast into a den of lions to the early Apostles being stoned to death and persecuted for their convictions, examples of individuals following their convictions abound in scripture.[14]

After preaching complete separation of church and state in New England, Williams was expelled fled to Providence, Rhode Island in 1636, fearing for his safety. In Rhode Island, he came to practice Believer’s Baptism, advocating for the baptism of adult believers by immersion and would later establish the First Baptist Church in America.[15] Williams’ life, ministry, and radical preaching against the Puritan influence of the region are significant as his passion led him to become a dedicated proponent of religious liberty. He is credited with first using the phrase “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” in describing the relationship between the church and the state.[16] For Williams, religious liberty meant separation of church and state and protection of the integrity of churches and for the rights of religious minorities, and the image of “the wall” symbolized the firm respect of each individual’s conscious and a genuine reverence for human dignity.[17]

Williams’ metaphor of the “wall of separation” would later be used by constitutional scholars to define and clarify the meaning of the establishment clause of the United States Constitution. In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Thomas Jefferson described the dynamic between the state and the church as a “wall of separation.” Upon Jefferson’s election in 1801, the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, described themselves as “uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty” and urged the newly elected president to not “destroy” the progress already achieved with the nascent constitution. In his response, Jefferson declared that the religious liberty clauses in the First Amendment were “the act of the whole American people” and affirmed the “wall of separation between Church and State” as a unique part of the American experiment and that the “rights of conscience” should be affirmed.[18]

The Supreme Court would later make use of Jefferson and Williams’ words most notably in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, NJ. In Everson, the Court famously applied the First Amendment Establishment Clause to state law, and Justice Hugo Black, a Baptist turned Unitarian, delivered the majority opinion. Black affirmed that the Establishment Clause was binding upon the states, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment applies equally to the states the stipulations included in the Bill of Rights.[19] Many Baptists, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty,[20] have affirmed Everson as strengthening religious liberty by affirming the separation of church and state in the First Amendment.[21]

The idea of religious liberty being a closely treasured idea for Baptists comes from their history as a persecuted group. Because Baptists were not always a majority denomination, they advocated for tolerance and respect of faiths in the minority. Now that Baptists have become a more influential group in the United States, it is imperative to continue the fight for the rights of religious minorities so that each individual is protected by the government and from government or societal encroachment into individual liberty. While Baptists were not the primary originators of the concept, religious liberty became a solid theme for the persecuted religious group throughout Europe and America.[22] As a former persecuted religious minority, Baptists believe that, in order for society to be free, civil authorities must protect and defend the religious rights of all people.[23]

Advocating Today

James Dunn, former Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, used to tell his classrooms that “the trouble with a theocracy is everyone wants to be Theo!”[24] Beginning as an early outsider group in the Protestant Reformation, Baptists remember their persecution and support the religious liberty rights of all individuals, arguing that no authority, either a demographic majority or civil power, should impose their religious beliefs on others.[25] The staunch advocacy of religious liberty is one of the strongest gifts that Baptists have offered civil society in the United States, affirming and expanding the pluralistic vision of our country’s founders, and fully living into the spirit of the ideals of the Enlightenment.[26]


[1] Gastaud, Edwin S, Roger Williams (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 11, 13.

[2] Shurden, Walter, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smith & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993), 47.

[3] Shurden, Walter. The Baptist Identity, 10.

[4] Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Matthew 16:13.

[5] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 29.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 34, 35.

[8] Ibid, 29.

[9] Goodwin, Everett C. Down by the Riverside: A History of the Baptist Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2002), 7.

[10] Goodwin, Everett C. Baptists In the Balance: The Tension between Freedom and Responsibility (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1997), 74-75.

[11] Bowlby, David Dean. The Garden and the Wilderness: Church and State in America to 1789 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 27.

[12] Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. “A Heritage of Freedom.” Citizens of Two Kingdoms: Lessons for Youth in Baptist History and Religious Liberty (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, 1996), 12, 13, 14.

[13] Goodwin, Down by the Riverside, 13-14.

[14]Groves, Richard, ed. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (Atlanta: Mercer University Press), 33.

[15] Goodwin, Baptists in the Balance, 78-80.

[16] Bowlby, The Garden and the Wilderness, 28.

[17] Davis, Roger. On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008) 3.

[18] Bowlby, The Garden and the Wilderness, xii, 189, 190.

[19]Alley, Joseph S. James Madison on Religious Liberty (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1985), 280, 281, 282.

[20] Note: For more information on the Baptist Joint Committee, or to read about contemporary issues concerning religious liberty, visit www.bjconline.org.

[21] “Supreme Court and Religious Liberty.” Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. http://bjconline.org/mission-history-church-state-separation/

[22] Goodwin, Everett C. The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2995), 18, 19, 20.

[23] Ibid, 52, 53.

[24]“Truth with the Bark on It: The Wit and Wisdom of James Dunn,” The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, July, 2015, http://bjconline.org/truth-with-the-bark-on-it-the-wit-and-wisdom-of-james-dunn.

[25] Goodwin, The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches, 19.

[26] Davis, On Religious Liberty, 3.


Rev. Jason Smith is the Congregational Engagement Specialist for the Alliance of Baptists and resides in Arkadelphia. He is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the incoming Chair of the Interfaith Arkansas Board of Directors.

Religious Liberty – A Catholic Viewpoint

By Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

In this short essay, I will give a brief overview of the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding religious liberty. As a follower of Jesus, I recall that he declared that we would be persecuted and would be blessed if we suffered persecution because of his name. He gave us no guarantee that our rights would be respected.

During the first 300 years of our existence, martyrdom was an essential part of Christian spirituality. We Catholics recall with pride that Peter the first Pope and Paul the great evangelist both gave their lives for the faith, as did thousands of others – religious liberty was not on the radar then, or indeed for most of history. Over the centuries we have persecuted others for their faith and been persecuted by others for ours. And while Catholic thought on this topic has developed over time, it is striking that our most comprehensive official teaching on religious liberty only goes back 50 years, to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). American Catholics recall with pride that this document of the universal Church was drafted largely by an American priest, John Courtney Murray, who pushed for an American understanding of religious freedom drawn from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Dignitatis Humanae seeks to address the challenge of spreading the Christian faith while respecting democratic societies and growing religious pluralism. It asserts three fundamental rights: 1) freedom of conscience, 2) freedom to live one’s faith individually and in community without interference; and 3) the autonomy of religious institutions. All of these rights are threatened in the world today.

Freedom of Conscience

Freedom of conscience means that no one may force us to do what conscience forbids or forbid us to do what conscience requires (which is not the same as what conscience “allows”0, within due limits. Examples of limits for common good to things which some consciences might allow include having a minimum age for marriage, prohibiting the marriage of siblings and first cousins, and prohibiting the marriage of people of the same gender. Conscience does not “require” underage, incestuous or same-sex unions, all of which are contrary to natural law.

The right and obligation to follow the requirements of our conscience are rooted in our inalienable, God-given dignity as a human person. This does not, however, mean that we can always do whatever we want. Objective truth determines what is right or wrong and decisions based on what is objectively false bring with them the natural consequences that are destructive on the human person and of society. And in this we have an obligation to protect the common good.

For example, the Church opposes so-called same-sex marriage not because it hates those who experience same-sex attraction or seeks to perpetuate sinful discrimination against them, but rather because natural law – God’s will for human behavior revealed in the very way in which he created our world (in this case the physical and sexual complementarity of the human person necessary for procreation) – dictates our position that marriage is a holy endeavor between one man and one woman. Now our government and society are abandoning this objective truth regarding marriage which has been held as self-evident by virtually all cultures from the very dawn of human existence. And despite our First Amendment rights, some who refuse to accept this truth attempt to discredit and silence us by stigmatizing unjustly Catholics and others who won’t bend to the direction of today’s winds as motivated by hate and intolerance.

The Church’s opposition to the contraceptive mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services is another application of this principle. That mandate intends to require us to participate in the provision of insurance for morally objectionable medical “services” (artificial contraception, non-medically indicated sterilizations and abortions in some circumstances) whether by providing this coverage directly or by an action that would serve to trigger their provision through a third party, forcing us to participate in what conscience forbids.

Freedom to live one’s faith individually and in community without interference.

The function of government is to provide for the common good, but when it presumed to direct or inhibit religions acts, it exceeds the limits of its authority. Our religious bodies have the right to govern themselves according to their own norms, to instruct members in their faith, to give corporate public witness to their faith without hindrance and to welcome new converts. Note that freedom of worship is only one element of religious freedom. Individuals and religious bodies have a God-given right to live our faith without hindrance in every area of life, including the manner in which believers conduct their business, the schools which our children attend and the way we operate our schools, and the way in which health care services are provided.

Here the historical record of the Catholic Church in some Catholic countries is not good, especially during the medieval period. In those days theologians held that charity required us to do all in our power to eradicate error, even enlisting government coercion, in order to save society from the infection of error and for the eternal welfare of those who were headed for perdition due to idolatry, heresy, or schism But sadly, history teaches us that we can justify about anything whenever we put ourselves in God’s place. “Deus Vult” – “God wills it” – was the rallying cry of the First Crusade. This mentality also gave us the Inquisition. And worse, this mentality also left an opening for the ongoing demonization of those who are different, leading to every form of marginalization and discrimination, and ultimately in Europe, to the Holocaust.

We Catholics have learned what is at stake when Religious Liberty is not protected. We know because not only have we been guilty historically of denying religious liberty to others, we have also been on the losing side of this dynamic in Protestant countries, and continue to lack full religious freedom in many non-Christian countries today – indeed, in some parts of Asia and the Middle East, Catholics still lack even the freedom to worship in public. The same is true for members of many other religious minorities. In much of Latin America during the 20th century the Church was a target of governmental persecution – Guatemala produced thousands of martyrs in the 1980s, including F. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest whose canonization is now in Rome. Now the Church in Latin America is being attacked by drug cartels – three priests have been killed recently in southern Mexico – so governments are not the only threat. Here in the United States, the Church is not yet a target of overt persecution, but the secular climate is becoming more hostile and here the threat comes not from rival religious groups as in the past, but rather from an aggressive secularism that seeks to discredit and undermine faith of any sort.

The autonomy of religious institutions

Religious freedom is exercised in a pluralistic world and so is subject to certain regulatory norms designed to assist in the exercise of our rights and to protect the rights of others. Therefore the autonomy of religious institutions is not absolute, for instance when there is proof of some violation of the rights of others, or of public peace, or of public morality – as in the case of our scandalous clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Apart from this necessary restriction of religious liberty in order to meet the requirements of justice and to safeguard the rights and freedoms of others, in all other matters, people should be free to act on their own judgment so long as they do not use that freedom as a pretext for refusing to submit to legitimate authority in matters relating to the common good. Dignitatis Humanae insists: “Religious freedom, therefore, ought to have this further purpose and aim, namely, that men may come to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life.”

Conclusion

My basic message and that of the Catholic Church on the topic of religious liberty is inescapable: 1) no one may licitly force us to do what conscience forbids or forbid us to do what conscience requires, 2) we should be free to live our faith in every area of life without undue interference – not just while at worship, and 3) religious institutions should enjoy full autonomy, limited only as needed to protect the rights of others.

But one major thing is missing from this presentation, namely Jesus’ even more fundamental invitation “to love others as I have loved you,” meaning completely, selflessly, to the point of laying down our lives for others. That is where human freedom resides most fully. And so while we recall with pride that religious liberty is our first and greatest freedom as Americans, it is also important to remember that Jesus warned us not to expect the world to change to accommodate us. Indeed, he warns us that the world will hate us when we speak a truth that people don’t want to hear and should this result in persecution, we should feel blessed and not be surprised. It has happened before and as we see from current events, it may well happen again.


Bishop Anthony B. Taylor was ordained bishop on June 5, 2008 and is the seventh bishop for the Dioceses of Little Rock.  He has a Bachelor’s degree in History from St. Meinrad Seminary College and a Ph.d. from Fordham University.  He was ordained a priest on August 2, 1980.

The “Religious” Aspect of Religious Liberty

by Jim Winkler. James Winkler is the President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. As President and General Secretary, he speaks for the Council, works with staff, board members, Christian, and interfaith leaders and is responsible for providing leadership and management of daily affairs and operations. Prior to his work with the National Council of Churches, he served as General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.


Frankly, we’re at war. That’s blunt, but it’s true. Two worldviews are locked in mortal combat right now in our politics, our popular culture and our courts and legal system.

The first worldview says that free speech and freedom of religion are the basis for the founding of this nation—the fundamental inspiration of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This side believes, with James Madison, that “conscience is the most sacred of all properties,” and that the first duty of every citizen and every public servant is to preserve and protect the freedoms that ensure our rights of conscience.

The other side contends that these freedoms are not essential, but negotiable—to be altered or diminished, depending on who is yielding power.

As I said, this is a war, not a battle or momentary conflict. We must encourage each other, teach our children, engage our leaders and flex our strength at the ballot box. The essential freedoms we have cherished so long are no longer a given for any of us. May God give us the grace to stand and defend the incredible legacy of liberty He’s entrusted to our nation.

These words by Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom appeared in Decision magazine, the publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association just before the 2016 election.

Scary stuff. Sears says we’re in a war to defend religious freedom. Franklin Graham often employs similar language. Our way of life is at stake. The government and various bad guys want to destroy America and our religious liberty and we have to fight back.

I know one thing: I’m sick and tired of war. The U.S. has been at war nearly my entire life.

In 1 Maccabees, the story of the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes is recounted. Antiochus conquered Israel and Egypt. He seized the holy temple in Jerusalem and decreed the people should abandon their faith in favor of his.

He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land.”[1]

The king’s officers who were enforcing apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: ‘You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.’

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: ‘Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.’

When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. [2]

Here we have a biblical story found in the deuterocanonical books of the bible of the struggle for religious liberty. A new king comes to town and demands that everyone follow his religion. The faithful who have been conquered say, “Hell, no” and even kill one of their own who has collaborated with the conquerors.

They said, “You may have conquered us, but we’re not abandoning our faith. Better to die than be forced to worship other gods!”

On October 16, 2016, the Washington Post printed a full page ad titled “Declaration of Dependence upon God and His Holy Bible.” Among the signers were David Barton, who continues to twist American history to insist this is a Christian nation, televangelists such as Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, James Dobson, a variety of megachurch preachers, and retired Gen. William Boykin, who characterized US military operations as a battle between “our God” (Christian) vs. Satan or “idol” God of Islam.

The ad said, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Since our Creator gave us these rights, we declare that no government has the right to take them away. Among these rights is the right to exercise our Christian beliefs as put forth in God’s Holy Bible.”

They go on to denounce abortion, same-sex marriage, polygamy, bestiality, and all other forms of sexual perversion and state, “We therefore respectfully reserve the right to refuse any mandate by the government that forces us to fund or support abortion.”

So these American religious figures, like Mattathius, are saying to the government you may be in charge but we won’t abandon our religious beliefs.

There are those in this nation who believe the freedom to practice their religion is under assault by the government. These are not fringe elements. The two largest denominations in the nation, the Roman Catholic Church, with some 70 million members, and the Southern Baptist Convention, with 15 million members, have made these charges for years.

Also on October 16, 2016, a flyer titled, “It is a Mortal Sin to Vote Democrat” was distributed at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in San Diego. “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell,” it said.

The flyer was an insert into the bulletin distributed to those in attendance. It also stated that Hillary Clinton is under the influence of Satan. The pastor, Fr. Richard Perozich admitted to the New York Daily News that he had told churchgoers they would go to hell if they vote Democratic.

I think folks always get in trouble when they are convinced they are the one true church or the one true faith or consigning presidential candidates to hell. A friend of mine who grew up in the Church of God told me it was named the Church of God because they honestly thought everyone else would wake up and realize they had the true faith.

The Southern Baptists experienced a fundamentalist takeover in the late 1970s. The first SBC president in the right wing era of the SBC was Adrian Rogers who once said,

This is going to sound almost like megalomania, but I believe that the hope of the world lies in the West. I believe the hope of the West lies in America. I believe the hope of America is in Judeo-Christian ethics. I believe that the backbone of that Judeo-Christian ethic is evangelical Christianity. I believe that the bellwether of evangelical Christianity is the Southern Baptists Convention. So I believe, in a sense, that as the Southern Baptist Convention goes, so goes the world.

He was right. It does sound like megalomania. And when you adopt this line of thinking it’s easy to feel those who don’t agree with you are wrong and are trying to destroy you and the true faith. So when we talk about respecting everyone’s right to worship as they see fit, that just doesn’t work for those who feel there’s only one right way to worship and believe.

This country is far more diverse than when I was a child. The Washington Interreligious Staff Council in Washington now includes Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, and Baha’is. And, right here in Arkansas, there is an interfaith network. My Arkansas grandparents would probably be shocked.

The ecumenical movement has helped to foster understanding between many Christian denominations and tamp down ‘one true church’ claims. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Pope and the Lutherans had a big worship service in Europe to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and pledged to continue working for unity.

Interreligious dialogues and organizations have fostered understanding and solidarity. Groups like Shoulder to Shoulder exist to enable Jews, Christians, and Muslims to respond to anti-Muslim bigotry. We’ve come a long way to and yet we have a long way to go.

Just as white Protestants foolishly attempted more than 100 years ago to stop Jews and Catholics from coming to the United States, so, too, will the efforts to stop Muslims from entering be unsuccessful. We’ll have to figure out how to accommodate one another.

We have to wonder if some of the religious right figures have more faith in the political process than they do in Jesus. Here’s what Robert Jeffress, pastor of 1st Baptist Church of Dallas, a Donald Trump supporter, said a few months ago:

You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’ I said, ‘Heck no. I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.’

As I consider the public witness made by the National Council of Churches and its member churches and most of the faith groups we work closely with in Washington, we are trying to expand rights—for women, racial and religious minorities, young people, to end war, to care for the environment, to protect everyone’s right to privacy, to end poverty, to end mass incarceration.

When we approach elected officials, it is on behalf of the last, the least, and the lost, not for ourselves. We’re not trying to restrict rights of immigrants or of same-sex couples nor are we making the preposterous argument that giving same-sex couples equal rights is a form of discrimination against us.

We don’t face any problems in expressing our views in the halls of power. Just prior to the election, a video of Mike Pence was aired at Sunday services in many churches across the nation. In it, Pence said Trump will repeal the Johnson Amendment. “The Johnson Amendment has literally been on the books since the 1950s and it essentially threatens tax-exempt organizations and churches with losing their tax status if they speak out against important issues facing the nation from the pulpit,” Pence says. This is simply not true.

There’s a difference between us and the religious right—we’re not trying to control everyone’s life, we’re not claiming persecution, we’re not suggesting our religious liberty is abrogated if we don’t get our way.

Further, I believe most people of faith in this country are more hopeful than fearful, more tolerant than intolerant.

I agree with Russell Moore who said,

Many times we Christians are quick to claim persecution when we’re merely facing personal offense. It is not persecution when the woman at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart says ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’

The greatest threat to our religious liberty may actually be some of the religious people in this country.

[1]  1 Macc. 1:52

[2] 1 Macc. 2:15-28

The “Liberty” Aspect of Religious Liberty

by Jim Winkler. James Winkler is the President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. As President and General Secretary, he speaks for the Council, works with staff, board members, Christian, and interfaith leaders and is responsible for providing leadership and management of daily affairs and operations. Prior to his work with the National Council of Churches, he served as General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.


I’ve always thought religious liberty is all about “believe and let believe.” Even though my faith is best, you have the right to be wrong.

I saw a guy on a bridge once who was about to jump. I yelled to him, ‘Don’t do it!”

He said, ‘Nobody loves me.”

I said, ‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, ‘Yes.”

I said, ‘Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, ‘A Christian.”

I said, ‘Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, ‘Protestant.”

I said, ‘Me too! What franchise?”

He said, ‘Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, ‘Northern Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, ‘Die, you heretic!” And I pushed him over.

He was free to believe as he wished and I acted on my beliefs!

The National Council of Churches (NCC) issued a statement on Religious and Civil Liberties in the United States of America in 1955. The NCC said then that it

holds the first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to mean that church and state shall be separate and independent as institutions but to imply neither that the state is indifferent to religious interests nor that the church is indifferent to civil and political issues.

The National Council of Churches defends the rights and liberties of cultural, racial and religious minorities. The insecurity of one menaces the security of all. Christians must be especially sensitive to the oppression of minorities.

The exercise of both rights and liberties is subject to considerations of morality and to the maintenance of public order and of individual and collective security.

Religious and civil liberties are interdependent and therefore indivisible.

The Committee on Religious Liberty (CRL) was under the auspices of the NCC for many years. Prior to my service as president of the NCC, the Council went through a significant restructure and the CRL now resides with the Religious Freedom Center.

The NCC remains part of CRL as does the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Secular Coalition for America, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church & State, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the ACLU, the Church of Scientology, and a host of other groups. There are few committees with broader representation.

Their meeting earlier this year dealt with, for example, the Jim Thorpe case. (During the traditional burial after his death, his estranged wife interrupted the ceremony with sheriffs, etc., took his body away and sold it to a Pennsylvania village which renamed itself for Jim Thorpe. The Sac and Fox Nation and two of his sons filed a lawsuit to reclaim the body for the Nation under a federal law for repatriation of his body. The Third Circuit sidestepped the federal law saying that the application of the law would yield an “absurd” result. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert.)

Among other things, the CRL also discussed Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk who claimed a religious conscience exemption from the requirement to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The CRL pays serious attention to legislation and legal cases related to religious liberty.

In other words, there is an infrastructure of organizations keeping an eye on threats to religious liberty in legislatures and the courts. These groups stay in touch with one another despite deep theological and ideological differences and, when necessary, work together to defend religious liberty.

Additionally, the US State Department has an Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. That ambassador happens to be my good friend, Rabbi David Saperstein. David is constantly traveling around the world working on religious freedom. The NCC has briefed the State Department on religious freedom issues in Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere.

Some years ago the United States Congress created the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which is comprised of people appointed by the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the minority leaders of both houses. USCIRF, as it is known, was recently reauthorized for four more years, although some of us unsuccessfully supported reforms that would have strengthened the bipartisan structure of the commission and encouraged better coordination between it and the State Depatment.

I’m not a specialist on religious liberty. I agree with Brent Walker, until recently the head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, who says, “The separation principles is simply another way of saying government should not try to help or hurt religion, but it should leave religion alone…In short, government must be neutral towards religion.”

But our freedom to worship God or not does not permit employers to refuse to offer health care plans that deny birth control to employees because they feel offended. It does not permit storeowners to refuse to sell wedding cakes to gay couples because they don’t like LGBTQ people. It does not give farmers the right to sell unpasteurized milk because it somehow contravenes their faith. Things have been turned on their head. As Thomas Jefferson said,

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Not only are people, churches, businesses, and organizations claiming their own religious liberty is jeopardized if, for example, women have access to birth control, they are suggesting their religious liberty has been compromised if the government will not use taxpayer money belonging to all of us to fund their projects.

A Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri challenged a state decision denying a grant to its preschool which sought to replace the gravel on its playground with softer, safer material. The Missouri Attorney General says the state constitution expressly prevents tax dollars from being used to aid religious groups. The case went to the Supreme Court.

“They’re just kids,” says a church representative. But, if government tax money goes to help the church’s playground, why shouldn’t it be spent to fix the roof and otherwise generally help make the building safer?

“The issue is not whether the playground surface is inherently religious, but it’s whether the state government must fund an upgrade to a church playground despite a state constitutional ban on funding churches,” Hollman said.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment simply does not permit outright government funding or grants to churches and other houses of worship. “We do not look to government subsidies to build houses of worship; we should not fund capital improvements that way either,” Walker said.

Why not use government funds to support church work? Beats having to run the annual stewardship campaign. Perhaps the clergy can be government employees, too.

Your religious freedom is not limited because the government won’t fund your church playground. It’s limited when the government tries to stop the preacher from delivering a sermon in the church or in a public space designated as an open forum.

When President Bush announced his faith-based initiative, the point was made that religious institutions had been discriminated against in terms of receiving government grants. I’m not so sure that was accurate. Organizations like Church World Service and Catholic Relief Services receive millions of dollars of government money, but perhaps the focus was on local churches.

Quite a brouhaha erupted about what Bush was trying to do. I spoke in a number of United Methodist Church settings about it at the time and made the point that we needed to separate government money, tax funds, public money, that is, and church money. Public funds are for the benefit of everyone and we can’t, or shouldn’t, use tax money to push the agenda of our faith.

Now, if we want to apply for government money to run a homeless shelter or to build affordable housing or to run some kind of program then simply set up a separate corporation – but don’t mix church money and public funds. Otherwise, you may see on the nightly TV news footage of government agents walking out of your church carrying boxes of documents and your computers because they’re investigating whether you misused money that belongs to all of us—Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, and others. That money is different.

Our houses of worship have been built by their members for many years. Suddenly they require public money to keep going?

If an organization receives government money to help it run its hospitals or universities or relief agencies, then it has to abide by rules that apply to everyone. It can’t set the rules and it can’t whine about its liberty being infringed upon.

Bob Jones University used to ban black students. When it did accept them, the school banned interracial dating. As a result, it lost its tax-exempt status. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution arguing that the action violated churches’ constitutional right to operate without government interference, but Bob Jones lost, as well they should have.

When I was a boy, we Protestants used to oppose the use of taxpayer money to assist Catholic parochial schools. Our argument was that if you wish to have your own schools, that’s OK but you have to bear the expense. Tax money supports what the religious right now calls ‘government schools.’ We called them public schools.

Then came Brown v. the Bd. of Education and many a white Southerner withdrew their children from public or government schools in favor of newly created ‘Christian academies’, which were really just schools for white kids. Suddenly, these former anti-Catholics saw the virtue of seeking taxpayer money to support their private schools. And now they argue that if they don’t get public funding then it’s a form of religious persecution against them.

Plus, they want public money while they teach their version of the faith and reserve the right to fire teachers who get divorced, who are gay or support gay rights or who get pregnant outside marriage.

Where do we trace it all back to? A repudiation of civic commitment? Would American history have turned out differently if Protestants in the mid 19th century had not been virulently anti-Catholic? What if white Southerners had accepted the Supreme Court decision and peacefully merged white and black schools?

Meanwhile, some are arguing that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 is unconstitutional. That’s the law which provides churches and other nonprofit organizations with tax exempt status as long as they stay out of electoral politics. Mostly, it is the religious right that is making this argument. They want to retain their lucrative tax exempt status which they receive because they are viewed as providing a public good not seeking political power.

Battles over the Affordable Care Act, religious involvement in political campaigns, funding for church programs and charities, questions over zoning, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues, persecution due to religious identity, hate crimes, and numerous other issues promise to keep religious liberty in the forefront for many years to come.

There is no certainty our nation will continue to enjoy religious liberty without the commitment of all of us.

Religious Liberty for the Non-Religious

By Gerry Schulze, J.D. Gerry is an ordained minister in the Church of the Subgenius, a freethinker, and a polyglot. He practices law in Little Rock, Arkansas, and has successfully litigated lawsuits revolving around the separation of church and state.


I was asked to provide the perspective of a non-believer on the topic of religious liberty.  Although I have no religion,[1] I am as entitled to religious liberty as any other American.  I understand why religious people, with sincerely held religious beliefs, can ask in good faith what a non-believer wants in the way of religious liberty.  It seems somewhat self-contradictory.   Yet non-religious people like me ask for – and sometimes demand – the protection of religious liberty.

I can, of course, speak for only one non-religious person: myself.  Those of us without religious faith have no dogma, no catechism, no holy book, and no leaders who can speak with spiritual authority for the community.  Non-religious people come from many different perspectives and self-identify as atheists, agnostics, humanists, and in other ways.  The difference between these groups is never clear and is the subject of endless and fruitless discussion.  Personally, I self-identify as “not religious.”  I do not object when someone identifies me as “atheist” or “agnostic,” as I meet some common definitions of either term, but I believe my belief system is best described as the absence of religious faith.

What is an “atheist”?  According to a surprising study by the Pew Research Center, fourteen percent of self-described atheists also affirm belief in a God or a universal spirit.[2]  Likewise, far more Americans say that they don’t believe in a God than self-identify as atheist.[3]  So about all we can say about an “atheist” is that there’s a roughly eighty-six percent chance that he or she doesn’t believe in God.

It should go without saying—but it doesn’t so I’ll say it—that nonbelievers are neither Pagans nor Satanists.  I only mention this because of how often Christians confuse atheists with Pagans or Satanists.  Atheists—or at least eighty-six percent of us—don’t believe in the God and Goddess, don’t believe in other Gods, and don’t think there was a Satan.

Contrary to the contention of many believers that there can be no morality without God, I have a strong, often unbending moral code.  It’s just not enforced by a fear that there is a God who will punish me for violating it.  I’m not worried about an afterlife because I don’t think there is one.  But I don’t need God to punish me for my moral transgressions.  My conscience is quite capable of standing in for any God in that regard.  I acknowledge that I would be a sinner if there were any such thing as sin.  My conscience lets me know it.  My moral system generally coincides with the moral systems of believers, with a few exceptions and variations.  I see no vice of any kind or version of sexual conduct among consenting adults, and I see no virtue in believing things without evidence.  As to stealing, lying, killing, maiming, defrauding, and the like, my moral system is identical to that of most believers.  “Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston, the executive director of the Disciples Center for Public Witness, feels that, “On a practical level, secular humanists affirm many of the same ethical principles as progressive people of faith.”[4]

Legally, the general principle of religious liberty is found in the United States Constitution.  The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”  The incorporation of the protections of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments has a long and complicated history, and the process is not complete even yet.  But United States Supreme Court decisions recognizing the incorporation of the establishment clause[5] and the free exercise clause[6] were among the earliest decisions extending the protections of the Bill of Rights to actions of the states.

Courts have struggled, and will always struggle, to apply these general principles to the innumerable fact situations that can arise because of the innumerable different religious traditions.  There are many different kinds of sincerely held religious beliefs that we have some obligation to accommodate if we can.  For example, some people object to working on the Sabbath.  And we must remember that the Sabbath is not the same day to everyone.  The Christian majority, for the most part, celebrates the Sabbath on Sunday, while the Jewish tradition[7] and Seventh Day Adventists[8] celebrate the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.   The nature of the celebration of the Sabbath varies greatly from tradition to tradition.  For some people, however, the restriction on performing work on the Sabbath is taken very seriously.  Failure of an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs about working on the Sabbath can lead to charges of religious discrimination.[9]  The concept of a day of rest is not unique to the faithful.  “Some nonreligious people also value a day of rest as a hedge against the pace and demands of modern life.”[10]  But the context is different.  No doctrine requires the nonreligious to enjoy a day of rest.

Some religious traditions require adherents to dress in a certain way.  Recently, the United States Supreme Court allowed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to bring suit on behalf of a Muslim woman had a right to sue Abercrombie and Fitch for enforcing a dress code that would have prohibited her from wearing a headscarf on the job, as her religion required.[11]

Jehovah’s Witnesses often feature prominently in religious discrimination litigation.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently resolved a suit involving a Jehovah’s Witness’s refusal to raise the United States flag.  The employer entered into a consent decree and agreed to make reasonable accommodations.[12]

Most people in this country self-identify as Christian and practice either Christianity or ceremonial Deism.  Member of the majority seldom encounter the problems faced by members of religious minorities.  But that does not mean that they cannot understand the problems or sympathize with the religious minorities.  I can ask how you would feel if we opened city council meetings with the short affirmation that “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”[13] or “An it harm none do as ye will.”[14]  Can you truly deny that you would feel somewhat excluded?  What if you were asked to violate a ceremonial tenet of your faith?  How you would feel if some Italo-Roman Neopagans were to sacrifice a goat to Mercury and then offer you a bite.[15]  Would you not feel that you were being asked to violate the sacred tenets of your faith?

It is easy to understand how requiring individuals to perform certain acts might conflict with the obligations of their faith.  It is much more difficult to understand how to accommodate those religious feelings without adversely impacting others.  In the employment context, when a religious person’s sincerely held objection to working on the Sabbath entitles him or her to a day off, some other non-religious employee must take that employee’s place.  But there is a clear analytical difference between the concerns of people who have religious scruples against performing particular actions and the concerns of people who lack any religious concerns at all.  I cannot say, in good faith, that my religious belief requires me to wear any particular clothing, refrain from work on any particular day, or raise the flag of my country.  I wouldn’t even mind eating meat sacrificed to idols since I don’t think idols are real.  Even when it comes to actions that conflict with my lack of religious belief, such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance as modified—to my mind unconstitutionally—in 1954, I have no moral scruple against doing so, except to the extent that I might be actually misleading someone.[16]

I personally have little objection to the quotidian ceremonial deism we experience in everyday life.  It does not bother me to hear the clerk of a court intone “God save this honorable court,” so long as I’m not expected to join in the affirmation.  It really doesn’t bother me that the slogan, “In God we Trust” is printed on my money, although it seems to me that if I did believe in God I would be quite upset about this self-serving lie.  A nation that trusts in God wouldn’t find it necessary to spend more than the next ten countries combined on armaments, or to lead the world in the percentage of our citizens we imprison.  I’ve read the New Testament numerous times.  From that study, it seems obvious to me that a nation that trusted in Jesus’s Father would never tolerate the level of poverty, homelessness, and starvation that we accept as inevitable in 21st Century America.  But I don’t think there’s a God to be offended by this deity-slandering fabrication, so I don’t have to worry about it.

But what I do object to is not being treated as an equal.  I refuse to be a second-class citizen in the country I was born in.  Ceremonial deism is fine, and I don’t begrudge my fellow citizens the few seconds they want to honor their God, but I will not be left out of the conversation.  If there is a public space for speaking, I demand an equal right to be heard.

Sometimes this means that I will offend people.  I am fully aware that the mere expression of my lack of faith is offensive to some people.  I regret that, but ultimately I cannot remain silent just because there will be some people who do not like what I say.  I understand that sometimes nonbelievers, like believers, can be insensitive and occasionally innocently ignorant.  I recognize I may have gone over the line in anger from time to time and for this,  I apologize.  But I will not apologize for my perspective on religion, which is, I guarantee you, every bit as sincerely and deeply held as any religious belief you can imagine.  Free speech is as sacred to me as Jesus or Allah is to someone else.

Nonbelievers argue endlessly about whether we should make snide remarks about Jesus or draw pictures of Muhammad.  I think Jesus—or whoever wrote his material—was an interesting and sincere, if somewhat megalomaniacal and uncompromising, moral philosopher.  It’s his followers who have earned the ridicule. I have no idea what Muhammad looked like, and neither do the people trying to draw pictures of him.  Since so-called Muhammad cartoons are usually just racist caricatures of modern Middle-Easterners, I find those drawings not funny.  I don’t think we should offend people simply to be offensive.  That conscience I mentioned earlier reminds me of that when I go too far in criticizing believers.  But I will continue to fight against any attempt to restrict my right to go too far.

Nonbelievers have religious rights even though we don’t have religious rites.  Ultimately, by standing up with us to protect our freedom, you are protecting your own.


[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I am a minister in the Church of the Subgenius, registered as a minister with the Pulaski County Circuit Clerk for purposes of performing secular ceremonies.  No faith in the supernatural is required for membership.  Just send your $35.00 to “Bob.”  www.subgenius.com.  “Eternal Salvation or Triple your Money Back.”

[2] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/23/5-facts-about-atheists/

[3] Id.

[4] Speckhardt, Roy. “Hey Atheists: You’ve Got a Friend (Posted 2013-02-01 16:49:58) ; Do Atheists Have More Religious Friends Than They Realize?.” The Washington Post. 2013. HighBeam Research. (June 17, 2015). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-34197711.html

[5]  Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)

[6]  Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)

[7] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/633659/jewish/What-Is-Shabbat.htm

[8] http://www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/documents/article/go/0/sabbath-observance/

[9] http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/selected/religious_discrimination_facts.cfm

[10] Christopher D. Ringwald, A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians, and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom, and Joy on the Sabbath (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 11.

[11] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).

[12] http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/selected/religious_discrimination_facts.cfm

[13] The Muslim Shahada

[14] The Wiccan Rede

[15] Christians are admonished to abstain from food sacrificed to idols.  Acts 15:29

[16] Actually, I ordinarily simply remain silent during the second or two it takes my compatriots to intone, “under God.”

Religious Liberty: Now You See It – Soon You Might Not

By Larry Page. Larry Page is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He is the Executive Director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council. For nearly a decade he served as vice president and staff attorney for the Arkansas Baptist Foundation. 


The scope of religious liberties in America is and has been shrinking; it’s a protracted process occurring incrementally, but happening nonetheless.  It’s taking place, because the courts, much of the entertainment and news media, a great deal of academia, other assorted secular progressives, and an ever-growing segment of the American people are yielding to the politically-correct dogma that passes for honest philosophical thought and dialogue.

The judiciary, and particularly the federal judiciary, has aided and abetted the trend toward the secularization of our nation.  It is one thing to amend the constitution and write new laws by means of orderly, proper, and constitutional methods.  It is quite another thing for judges to legislate from the bench as activist jurists instead of fulfilling the legitimate role of interpreters of the law.  We have been laboring for some time under the heavy hand of an activist judiciary.  This was foreseen.

This is a good place to reflect on something Thomas Jefferson said about the judiciary and where he feared it might go.  In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Jarvis in 1820, he opined the following:

To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy . . . . The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. [Emphasis added]

 

As if to underscore the prescience Thomas Jefferson displayed in what he said in the letter to William Jarvis, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist observed in a 2000 decision that the Court “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” Critics might say that Rehnquist was a conservative jurist and had a myopic view of the place religion and matters of faith had in the American way of life, and the critics would be wrong.  It was and continues to be as Justice Rehnquist described honestly and objectively.

To highlight some ways in which religious freedoms are being constricted, consider five recent cases handled by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an association of Christian attorneys dedicated to defending and preserving religious liberty.  Hundreds of other situations could be cited if space here permitted.

1) A second grade student at a public school in New Jersey was told that she could not sing “Awesome God” in an after-school talent show.  2) A pastor of a church in Arizona was ordered to stop holding meetings or Bible studies in his private home.  3) Five Christian men were threatened with arrest for sharing their faith on a public sidewalk in Virginia.  4) A Christian student at a university in Missouri was threatened with having her degree withheld because she refused to write a letter to the state legislature expressing her support for homosexual adoption.  5) A pro-life nurse at a hospital in New York was forced to participate in a late term abortion, even though her workplace had agreed in writing to honor her religious convictions.

Before going any further, it should be said that nothing here is to suggest that our nation should function as an ecclesiocracy, or one in which an organized, institutional religion or denomination rules.  Many people mistakenly use the word “theocracy” (which means God rules) to convey their opposition to a society in which the church rules.  No one is contending that any particular faith system, religion, denomination, or sect be given authority or power to make law or set mandatory policy and standards.  But what is being asked is the continued right for individuals personally and corporately as churches to practice what the first amendment guarantees – the “free exercise” of religion.

While “freedom of religion” is one of our fundamental, bedrock principles, its value would be near nothing if we did not recognize and hold to the indispensable implied right of “freedom from religion.”  Every human is possessed of a free will – adherence to a particular faith belief or holding to none at all is a choice available to everyone.  Coercion to accept and practice religious doctrine of any kind has no place in a free society.

What most reasonable people want is a fair and honest assessment of the principles upon which this nation was founded, recognition of the values which served as a foundation for those principles, and fidelity to the duly constituted and codified laws resulting from an application of those values and principles.  No one is served by a cheap “end-around” of constitutional provisions and codified laws by judges deliberately misconstruing interpretations of those provisions or laws or by a president’s or governor’s illicit use of executive orders and actions – both of which are usurpations of the powers reserved to the legislative branch or to the people themselves.

No serious discussion of religious liberty in America can be had without referencing the principles ensconced in the very first amendment to our federal constitution.  In its relevant part, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress [that can now be read “Government” since the U.S. Supreme Court made the Bill of Rights applicable to states through the application of the 14th Amendment] shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”  [Emphasis added]  

It is important to note that the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” is nowhere to be found in the first amendment or anywhere else in the constitution.  That sort of extra-constitutional principle was first used in the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Everson v. Board of Education, by Justice Hugo Black in his majority opinion.  Black was an Alabama Democrat and former member of the Ku Klux Klan; he was appointed to the court by President Franklin Roosevelt.  He actually appropriated the wording from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists in 1802, using the phrase to assure them that the newly formed federal government would not establish a specific denomination of Christianity and would protect religious freedoms.

There are two rather important aspects of the first amendment’s religion clause that many people don’t understand – and the misunderstanding has serious consequences.  First, some read the free exercise of religion part of the first amendment and conclude that it is the government that conferred or granted that right to the people.  The correct position is that government has recognized the right and acknowledged its importance, not that the government created the right and granted it to the people.

No less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson, along with his fellow founders, made it crystal clear where the rights of man originated.  In our nation’s birth certificate – the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson penned – he said eloquently:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  [Emphasis added]

Jefferson knew what most people know or should know.  God, not the government, confers rights.

The second misunderstanding that skewers the meaning of the religion clause is for many not a misunderstanding at all; but rather it is a deliberate attempt to misconstrue the intentions of the founding fathers and those who followed them.  They attempt to make the case that those men were guilty of hyperbole, overstatement, and clumsy phrasing, culminating in a failure to articulate how they really intended the republic they were creating to be essentially a secular culture that valued diversity and held no antipathy against nor any affinity for matters of faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the polemics practiced today one can try to easily refute and counter another’s argument with the assertions that it is built on opinion without proof, feelings without fact, and conclusions with only flimsy and circumstantial evidence.  The last half of this piece will be used to thwart any attempts to marginalize Americans’ religious liberties with such vapid accusations.  I will do so by using hard and irrefutable facts.

The following is a sampling, a mere fraction of some of the utterances, propositions, and acts of the founders of this nation and those who followed in their footsteps.  After even a cursory view of these things, no clear-headed, honest-thinking person could have even the slightest doubt about where these patriots’ sentiments were when it came to the importance of religious liberty and how indispensable to the American way of life they considered it to be. The items listed are in no particular chronological order nor are they in any rank designating importance.

Now, let me begin.  The first order of business for Congress in 1789 was to appoint chaplains in both chambers.  Since those early days, both the Senate and the House of Representatives open their sessions with prayer.  Our coins are stamped with the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

Congress inserted the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.  On the very day in 1789 that the First Amendment was approved, Congress asked President Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.  In his proclamation designating a National Fast Day, Abraham Lincoln said that “Those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”

 Each session of the U.S. Supreme Court begins with the prayer “God save the United States and this honorable court.”  The Ten Commandments hang over the head of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The words “In God We Trust” are found in the House and Senate chambers.  On the walls of the Capitol dome can be found “The New Testament according to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  In the rotunda of the Capitol is the figure of the crucified Christ.  Presidents conclude their oaths of office with their left hand on an open Bible, with these words: “So help me God.”

The phrase “Annuit Coeptis” (“God has smiled on our undertaking”) is inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States.  Under the seal can be found the phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “This nation under God.”  Leviticus 25:10, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto the inhabitants thereof” is displayed on the band of the Liberty Bell.

On the walls of the Library of Congress are the words of Micah 6:8: “He hath showed thee, O Man, what is good; and what doth God require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  Engraved on the metal cap on the top of the Washington Monument are the words:  “Praise be to God.”  Lining the walls of the stairwell of the Washington Monument are several Bible verses.

At the opposite end of the Lincoln memorial, words and phrases from Lincoln’s second inaugural address reference “God,” the “Bible,” “providence,” “the Almighty,” and “divine attributes.”  The Jefferson Memorial quotes Jefferson in the following way:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty.  Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” [Emphasis added]

What is shared above is but a little of the evidence that religious liberty had a very special place of prominence in our nation’s founding, that it was considered indispensable, and represents an undeniable conviction that it’s diminution cannot possible redound to our benefit.  Any open-minded, honest thinker – one who is without a tainted agenda – can come to no other conclusion when faced with the mountain of evidence that exists for this premise.

There can be no better way to close this than by repeating the words of the Father of our Country and our first president.  George Washington said:

 “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  [Emphasis added]

A Lutheran On Religious Liberty

By the Reverend Doctor Clint Schnekloth. Dr. Schnekloth is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and is currently pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, AR.  He is a graduate of  Luther College, Luther Seminary and has his Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.  He is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era


When developing a vocabulary of culture and society, difficulties arise. It is the words themselves that often present particular trouble. Conceptual words, what Raymond Williams calls keywords in his book of the same name, are notoriously elusive.  They have specialized meanings in particular areas of study. Their usage is variable in general discussions.

Williams wrote an entire book on keywords because he found that with such words the problems of the meaning of the words are “inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss” (Introduction). In other words, the words themselves are elements of the problem we are seeking to solve when we discuss that which the words are intended to signify.

I have been given the task of writing an essay on the understanding of religious liberty from a Lutheran perspective. With “religious liberty,” our troubles are twofold, for we have two words tethered, both of them endlessly complicated. One of them made it (sort of) into William’s keyword lexicon, elucidated in neighboring entries on liberal and liberation in his lexicon.

If we take Williams as at least somewhat authoritative, we learn that although liberty in general means freedom, the more specific use of the term historically has been that of formal permission or privilege. We “take” liberties. Other than this sense, liberty also has the sense of rights granted under the auspices of some sovereign. Our liberties are protected.

Williams offers another entry on liberation and notes that although historically liberation was understood as emancipation, being set free from bondage, the more contemporary sense of liberation includes a more active sense of winning self-determination. Our religious liberties are ours; we own our own freedom.

I will circle back around to this term, liberty, in a bit, offering a comparison to the word more appropriate to Christian and Lutheran theology, that of freedom. But for a moment, let’s continue with the other keyword. Williams offers no concise definition of religion, so we are left to our own devices. And we all know that the word “religion” is one of the most hotly contested words on the planet. Not only is there a global contest as to what counts as the “right” religion, but religious studies as a discipline is almost humorously incapable of defining the very term they study. I say “almost” because the academic guild, having the task of defining religion in a “sortal” way to cover a set of activities, way-of-being-in-the-world, tests the range of definitions and finds them lacking, but then continuing the quest. A scholar’s quest for a definition of religion aspires to objectivity and neutrality, which is a wholly different approach than the confessional one.

We can chase the word religion down a lot of paths. Some claim it has to do with organized forms of worship. Some argue it is about a shared sense of meaning. Others about a higher power. Others a set of beliefs. The problem with almost every definition offered for “religion” is the reality that some religion of a specific group or individual conflicts with the definition. Some religions don’t organize for worship. Other religions deny that a search for meaning is integral to their faith. Many religions do not posit a higher power or may be actively anti-creedal, rejecting a body of beliefs as definitive of their religion.

This being the case, we may need to offer a more tautological definition of religion: a religion is what is claimed as a religion. If it’s your religion, that’s a religion. I offer this definition, recognizing that this hands the definition of religion over to the participant, whereas there are some legitimate arguments to be made for the definition of religion remaining in the hands also of analysts of religion, even if their definitions always fall short of completely articulating the phenomenon of religion as we experience it.

So we can offer a somewhat concise definition of religious liberty: Religious liberty is the hard-won freedom and privilege to practice religion as we understand it, or as the religious analysts observe and continually articulate it.

Of course, this itself is hotly contested. Not all advocates for religious freedom successfully extend privileges to all religions, and oftentimes the claims of one religion in its liberty stands in incommensurable conflict to the religious claims of others. These are the sites in our culture of particular heat and pain.  By and large, though, I would argue that a Lutheran understanding of religious liberty would, in its vocation to live with and through this world, share much in common with secular or standard understandings of the two terms, especially in our shared responsibility to protect religious liberty in as capacious a sense as possible. Which is to say, a working Lutheran definition of religious liberty would be to practice our faith in such a way that the religious liberties of others are safeguarded and even advanced as much as possible.

This brings us to the specifically Lutheran approach to the topic. Lutherans carry with them a rather famous essay of Martin Luther, “On Christian Liberty.” In this essay, Martin Luther offered a famous paradox:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.

This paradox benefits from a bit of unpacking. First of all, Luther is working in categories of freedom related to the things above as much as he is working in categories related to things from below. That is, towards God, because of the justification of the ungodly in Christ, Christians are completely free, no longer bound by their concern for salvation, and so subject to no one as regards their standing before God. If there is one mark of what it means to be Lutheran, it is likely this–we have been set free from having to earn, purchase, justify, or establish in any sense our standing before God. Christ has set us free from this. That is a form of religious liberty. This is the freedom Luther discovered reading the letters of Paul, particularly the letters to the Galatians and Romans.

So we are freed from justifying ourselves with God. We are realigned, new margins set, working our way down the page not free from any margins, but free for specific margins. We are justified for the neighbor, set at liberty, subjected to the neighbor and their need. The new direction of concern for the Christian set free from the law is the neighbor in love.

This bears repeating. We are set free, liberated, for our neighbor. In this sense, Christian liberty is not a license, or the liberty to do anything, but liberation, solidarity with the neighbor so free and deep as to completely pour the self out in neighbor love. This is why the greatest commandment, though a law, is itself a paradoxical law, because it looses by binding.

This is where the paradox lies.  We can’t have the one without the other, even if they appear at first blush paradoxically incompatible. Freedom can’t be true freedom without love. Love can’t be love unless it is free.

As a result, we can offer two robust theses regarding a specifically Lutheran understanding of religious liberty.

First, religious liberty in the Lutheran sense will agree with the Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanae, that “a human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all [human beings] are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to [their] own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” So Lutherans, as ecumenically oriented Christians open to and encouraging of shared commitments concerning religious liberty, agree with the Roman Catholic communion that part of the recognition of human dignity includes protection from religious coercion.

Lutherans would take this commitment one step further. It is a step that is implied in much of Dignitatis Humanae, if not expressly conveyed. Lutherans have a habit, grounded in their Small Catechism, of articulating an interpretation of God’s commandments not simply in the negative, but also in the affirmative. For example, Luther’s explanation of the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” reads–We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in their body, but help and befriend them in every bodily need.

If we take this same interpretive stance as regards religious liberty, Lutherans might say, a human person should be not simply immune from coercion, but also encouraged and supported in their religious practice. Not only are we committed to protecting the free exercise of religion, we are also committed as Lutherans to ensuring that all humans can practice their religion in as lively and life-giving a manner as possible. This might take many forms in many places, but at the very least, beyond ensuring that Muslims can build mosques and nobody at the university has to pray to a God they don’t believe in, Lutherans are committed to providing the resources and space, the conversation and neighborliness, that can make the religious liberty of their neighbor, of any kind, as vitalized as possible.

Second, and somewhat like the first, the Lutheran will practice their own religious liberty in solidarity with the neighbor in their religious liberty. Lutherans have this tradition of interpretation sometimes called the bound conscience, which emphasizes our responsibility to recognize when the neighbor, the other, has to stand in a place where they can “do no other,” as Luther apocryphally stated. This is to say sometimes we discover a moment, a place, where our neighbor’s faith is particularly imperiled. I am mindful, for example, of the recent tensions between Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College. Here, in this moment, a Lutheran who wishes to protect religious freedom will strive to understand and support the religious practices of these neighbors in faith.

In this particular example, Lutherans might say, “Well, Larycia Hawkins is practicing her faith, which includes her Advent discipline of embodied spirituality, the wearing of the hijab, and Wheaton College is practicing its religious freedom, the freedom to operate a Christian college with a specific statement of belief expected of all faculty.” Lutherans would likely also recognize, and be particularly sympathetic to, Professor Hawkins’s Advent discipline because it illustrates the kind of life-giving solidarity our peculiar understanding of religious freedom entails.

Where things would get complicated would be in the adjudication of the contesting claims for religious freedom between the college and Professor Hawkins. It would appear that one way or the other, somebody’s religious freedom is going to be curtailed. This is probably why Dignitatis Humanae includes that little final phrase in the quote above, “Within due limits.” There are due limits, in this life anyway, to the completely liberated practice of anyone’s or any group’s religion.

This is, specifically, the problematizing of the possible positivism I am working against by way of an articulation of the Lutheran paradox of Christian freedom. Personally, I do stand with and support Professor Hawkins and believe Wheaton College is constricting her religious liberty precisely because it has the white privilege and power to do so. The fact that she is a black woman speaking out for solidarity with Muslims puts her in the position in need of protection. Yet this needs to be problematized inasmuch as it is not always clear who gets to decide who is marginalized in a given situation. That being said, problematizing such positivism likely always carrying with it the inherent risk of benefitting whoever happens to hold the position of power, and thus indirectly curtailing rather than protecting religious liberty.

Take time, if you would, to read Professor Hawkins’s own case for herself  against Wheaton College.

In the case of such contested claims, a Lutheran understanding of religious liberty will err on the side of the liberty most in need of protecting. That is, solidarity will be with the marginalized, the vulnerable, the one most at risk in the structures of power that are at play. This is implicit in the paradox itself, the emphasis on taking the form of the servant for the neighbor in need. Lutherans seeking religious freedom for the neighbor will not join the group enforcing systems that obstruct religious liberty, even if those groups perceive their enforcement as itself an act of religious liberty. Lutherans will stand in solidarity with the weakest and most vulnerable. They will be servants with the servants, slaves with the slaves. Returning to Williams and his definition of liberty, it is much more than simple emancipation – it is winning self-determination.

The peculiar form of Lutheran religious liberty is a sense that no self-determination need be won on the God side of the equation, so, having already had the self-determination won for us through the suffering love of Christ, the Lutheran (and all Christians who share this perspective) is now free to join the fight for self-determination for those most in need of it. This is precisely what love looks like, in community, as it pertains to religious freedom.

Soul Freedom: A Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty

By Don Byrd.  Don Byrd is a lecturer at Nashville’s Belmont University and an attorney. He presents this article from the perspective of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He writes the popular Blog from the Capital for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, available at BJConline.org/blog


The tradition of Baptist advocacy for church-state separation and religious liberty is rooted in the foundational Baptist view of the relationship between God and the individual. As James Dunn, the former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, once wrote, “No pastor or priest, no doctrine or disciple, no book or belief, no church or creed comes between the individual and God.”[1] Instead, each one of us is responsible before God; and with that responsibility, each of us is free.

“Soul freedom” sparked the Baptist resistance to an established state religion in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it continues to inspire the response of true Baptists to religious freedom challenges in America today. Although faith is nurtured by church and family, we all come to God single-file, personally and individually, or not really, Dunn also said.

A pair of contemporary religious liberty issues arising out of Arkansas help demonstrates this connection.

First, in January of 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Holt v. Hobbs. Gregory Holt is a Muslim prisoner in the Arkansas Department of Corrections, who claimed a religious objection to prison policies forbidding him from growing a beard as required by his faith.

Arkansas officials argued that the beard ban was necessary for reasons of safety and security, while Holt maintained the state failed to demonstrate how a ½-inch beard posed a legitimate threat.

Second, in April 2015, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill authorizing the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol. The state will not pay for the monument, but it will, according to the law, arrange for its design and placement.

Opponents to such a display argue it amounts to an improper government endorsement of religion. State officials, however, believe the Decalogue, as a historically significant text, is rightfully placed among other monuments at the Capitol.

These two scenarios represent both contemporary church-state questions and centuries-old religious liberty dilemmas. How should we resolve a conflict between government regulation and an individual’s free exercise of religion? Should the state acknowledge the popular religious themes and ideals of its people?

Understanding the Baptist perspective on religious liberty and these fundamental questions requires a quick dive into Baptist history.

Baptists trace our North American heritage back to Roger Williams, an English preacher and all-around gadfly who brought his message of “soul freedom” to Colonial America in 1631, where he would demand separatism from the established church.

Williams believed authentic Christian faith to be impossible within a church tethered to the state. He advocated instead for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”[2] That separation is necessary, he urged, for a person to truly express their God-given liberty of conscience.

According to Williams’ theology, the faithful must not be mediated by a government or even a church authority, but must be free to commune directly with God. The influence of the state is an act of interference that corrupts the favored church and cripples the disfavored.

The idea of “soul freedom,” as one might expect, did not sit well with the Puritan theocrats governing the Massachusetts Bay colony, which was Roger Williams’ new home. Ultimately exiled for his “dangerous opinions,”[3] Williams and a small band of devotees traveled to then-uncolonized Rhode Island and established the town of Providence to put his radical ideas into action.

Conceived as a “livlie experiment”[4] in religious freedom, Williams’ settlement was by most accounts the first government in history committed to completely separating citizenship from faith. Providence became a shelter for minority faiths, voices of dissent, and those “distressed of conscience.”[5] It was there, in 1638, that he founded North America’s first Baptist church. The First Baptist Church in America remains today a vibrant congregation, describing itself as “still a haven for the oppressed.”[6]

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, hundreds of Baptist churches sprouted across America. While most colonies supported in some fashion an established state religion, Baptists championed separation as the only government stance that would allow voluntary faith to flourish. So long as the state picks sides in matters of faith, Baptists warned, the claim to God-given, individual soul freedom is undermined.

That fundamentally Baptist perspective on religious liberty explains why Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland pressed James Madison so fiercely to secure a Bill of Rights that included a guarantee of religious freedom. It also explains why the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, oppressed under the state’s established Congregational church, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to encourage his continued support for rights of conscience.  (Jefferson famously replied in 1802 with a letter expressing his hope that the “wall of separation between church and state” built by the First Amendment’s religion clauses would be an idea that “might germinate and become rooted in . . . political tenets.”[7])

The central lessons regarding government neutrality toward religion passed down from America’s early Baptist churches are still relevant today and cherished by true Baptists.

First, the state must not promote a religious creed, tradition, or viewpoint. This principle is enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ”

Treating any faith as privileged or even advancing religion in general is a misuse of the public trust. On that point, early Baptists like Isaac Backus, fighting for disestablishment in Massachusetts in the late 18th century, vigorously opposed taxation to benefit the established church. But they opposed just as strongly the corrupting influence of government activity that might promote their own religious views. As John Leland proclaimed, “ . . . the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecution ever did.”[8]

Second, the government must not interfere with religious exercise. This principle is written into the First Amendment by barring Congress (and more broadly the government) from “ . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . .” of religion. As soul freedom and soul competency before God are guiding tenets of Baptist theology, individuals must be allowed to express their faith according to the dictates of their conscience –

that is to say, freely, but always responsibly. Churches must likewise be granted autonomy to structure their worship, mission, and administration as they see fit.

For Baptists, however, the concern about state interference extended to all faiths. Experienced with religious persecution and marginalization as a small minority sect, early Baptists knew that if religious liberty of anyone is denied, the liberty of everyone is threatened.

Thus, both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause work together to protect religious liberty. They address concerns that formed the foundation of Baptist churches. Continuing the Baptist tradition, then, means demanding that both religion clauses remain robust. True religious liberty, unhinged from government support or interference, promotes social harmony across religious divides and allows religion to flourish. Or, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty likes to say, “the separation of church and state is good for both.”

How does that Baptist tradition translate to the contentious church-state disputes of today?

For one, it means acknowledging the diverse religious perspectives that make up our country by insisting on religious liberty for all, recalling that Baptists know the sting of persecution all too well. Baptist heritage calls on us to advocate for the religious exercise of a Muslim mosque with a fervor equal to a Baptist church that is denied a building permit without sufficient basis. Likewise, the standards governing workplace religious discrimination law should be the same for employees who observe the Sabbath on Saturday as they are for those who worship on Sunday.

The Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) has advocated this historic Baptist view of church-state separation for 80 years in Washington, D.C. The BJC, which serves 15 Baptist bodies, was instrumental in creating key federal laws that protect all Americans’ free exercise rights, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was the statute applied in the Holt case. Both laws stand for the proposition that the government may not pose a substantial burden to a person’s religious exercise unless the burden is necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest.

In the case of Gregory Holt, the Muslim inmate in Arkansas who sought to grow a beard, Baptists were rightly on his side. In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the BJC argued the state must make more than just a cursory effort to justify its policies when a person’s religious exercise is burdened. The Court agreed, ruling unanimously that the state Department of Corrections violated Holt’s religious liberty rights under RLUIPA by refusing to allow him a ½-inch beard in accordance with his faith.

Through the BJC, Baptists continue to advocate strong free exercise principles for all Americans, not just fellow Baptists.

With respect to Establishment Clause disputes, including challenges to government-sponsored Ten Commandment monuments, the traditional Baptist view demands no less fidelity to the principle that the state should refrain from promoting religion.  That is true both for the sake of those who have different religious views and for the sake of the promoted religion itself. The government would do better by all of us to stay out of the business of posting religious displays on property owned by all of us, whether it is a Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol, a Nativity scene at the county courthouse, or a large memorial cross in a public park.

As BJC General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman once wrote,

Government-sponsored religious monuments are always constitutionally suspect and theologically questionable. Any rule that puts the government in the position of making religious decisions threatens the freedom of religion. Those who share the BJC perspective on religious liberty will continue to promote the Ten Commandments (and other scriptural mandates) in a way that the Bible encourages: by writing them on our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah instructed.[9]

Unfortunately, the Establishment Clause has been weakened in recent years, jeopardizing the religious liberty of all of us. Government funding for faith-based religious schools (through vouchers) has been upheld as constitutional, as have government-led invocations opening official local government meetings.  The U.S. Supreme Court has also made it more difficult in some circumstances for taxpayers to challenge government funding of religion at all. From a traditional Baptist perspective, these are unwelcome holes in the wall of separation between church and state that has framed Baptist thought since Roger Williams.

Even worse, many religious liberty advocates, including some Baptists, have come to discount the value of a strong Establishment Clause and the “wall of separation” metaphor, which they claim has been used to marginalize religion by “pushing faith out of the public square.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Religion is as vibrant and robust as ever in America. What Baptists have urged since the 1630s remains true today: keeping government out of the religion business only enhances our freedom.

As for the Arkansas law authorizing a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds, recent events surrounding a similar statute in Oklahoma might be instructive. The Legislature passed and the governor signed the bill into law in 2009, despite opposition from the BJC expressing the view stated earlier, that while we cherish Scripture, it does not belong on a state Capitol monument. Six years later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the display violates the state’s constitution and ordered it removed.

Depending on the details surrounding such a display, courts may or may not find it lawful. Either way, Baptists should oppose government-sponsored or government-hosted religious monuments as a bad idea. It waters down and undermines the religious nature of the display, and it marginalizes those who follow a different faith or choose to follow none at all.

Since the founding of the first Baptist church in America nearly 400 years ago, Baptist heritage has emphasized the separation between church and state. Government neutrality in matters of faith – neither promoting nor interfering with religion – is the only way to assure authentic expression of our God-given soul freedom. Roger Williams’ “livlie experiment” works, if only we will strive to maintain it.


[1] www.bjconline.org/truth-with-the-bark-on-it-the-wit-and-wisdom-of-james-dunn.

[2] Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 207.

[3] LaFantasie, Glenn W., ed. The Correspondence of Roger Williams, University Press of New England, 1988, Vol. 1, pp.12-23.

[4] Evan Haefeli, “How Special Was Rhode Island? The Global Context of the 1663 Charter,” in The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams, Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda, eds. (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 37-52.

[5] Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, 207.

[6] www.firstbaptistchurchinamerica.org.

[7] Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802.

[8] Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 107.

[9] Report From the Capital 60/7 (July/August 2005): 10.

 

Buddhism and Religious Liberty

By Anna Cox.  Anna Cox, a retired psychotherapist, co-founded the Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas and founded Compassion Works for All, a prison Dharma organization.


Buddhism is inherently a program of self-liberation in which the liberty of each individual is honored as an essential part of the process of consciousness evolution.

Here is a quotation from Siddhãrtha Gautama (Shakyamuni Buddha) who offered the foundational teachings of what later became the tradition of Buddhism:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for many generations.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Buddhism is less a religion and more a path of experiential unfoldings. Buddhism asks that one listen to teachings, enter into community with other supportive and like-minded participants, and then to primarily practice meditation and contemplation until one experiences what becomes known to one in their spiritual heart. Teachings offer wisdom understandings of reality and how to gain compassion. Their main focus is on the methods of meditation, compassion, and explorations of subtle consciousness evolution. The practitioner is then asked to spend thousands of hours in meditation practices. Teachers who have done these experiential journeys themselves and who have accomplishment in awakening consciousness, tutor and guide students as they follow these same pathways into self-awareness. As each begins their path, it is known that the practitioner will have their own unique experiences while traveling through similar consciousness territories. They will be growing in their way to wisdom awareness and compassionate transformation.

Liberty is at the very heart of this unique unfolding.  There is not even the concept of a path other than what unfolds since each individual must be honored and supported on a path that is theirs alone. Liberty is emphasized in the students having the inner permission and courage to listen to their unfolding path for their ultimate awakening into true Buddhahood.

Religious Liberty from a Reform Judaism Perspective

by Rabbi Eugene H. Levy. Rabbi Levy retired in 2011 from long service to Temple B’nai Israel in West Little Rock, but has definitely not retired from social justice activism. He is a co-founder of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance.


The past few years I have become very leery of the titles that our Arkansas State Legislature often attaches to bills up for consideration and vote. Very often these titles are misleading and obfuscate the motivations and ramifications of the very bills themselves. For example, the term “non-discrimination” almost always implies that there is some discrimination implicit or explicit, and the terms “freedom” and “liberty” often are red flags that someone’s liberty and freedom are about to be in peril.

With this hypothesis, nothing has been more evident, at least to me, than the uses and misuses of the term “religious liberty.” I hope to lay this out for you and then to follow up with what I think Reform Judaism has to say about this topic.

When confronted with a person or a bill that focuses its message on the terms “religious freedoms” or “religious liberty,” we need to quickly move to that person’s or to that bill’s motivation for using those terms. Is it literally for one’s own religious liberty and freedom, or is it for the religious freedom to discriminate against another’s freedom?

Let me try to clarify. I, for one, look at “religious liberty” as the freedom of a person or group to have and to hold their own specific and meaningful religious beliefs, speech, and actions – and the right to act on them or even change them at will.

In the United States, for the most part, individuals and groups are free to engage in religious activities – and are also free not to—without the coercion of government or other religious groups. In this country, we are not punished for our thoughts or belief, nor for our actions so long as they comport with the law.

However, there seems to be a rapidly emerging and growing new meaning of the terms “religious liberty and freedom,” and that is to use that term as a cover for the freedom to discriminate against others for just about any conceivable reason. We have the much over-used example of the shop owner using religious freedom to say that his religion would not allow him to sell flowers or a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Under the guise of religious liberty, certain states have enacted laws that either overtly or more subtly allow one group of people to apply their religious beliefs to deny service to, hate, oppress or otherwise discriminate against the human rights of others.

Such seems to be the case with RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Its original reason for being was quite different that the most recent spate of states trying to use that very bill title to cover for ways to continue to discriminate specifically against the rights of the LGBT community.

In February and March 2016, a number of states rushed to pass these bills which, instead of protecting the rights of a minority religion and native American practice as was the intent of RFRA in 1993, are a way of preserving discrimination under the guise of promoting religious liberty.

Just as the so-called “Moral Majority” of the 1980’s hijacked the words “moral,” “family,” “flag,” and “life,” and added the word pro- to them and then defined these terms so that the “pro” fit their philosophy, so it seems to me that many fundamentalist-oriented legislators, both state-based and nationally, have now hijacked the term “religious liberty” to justify discrimination.

While we are often quick to quote the great Jewish sage Hillel as well as Jesus in what is often referred to as The Golden Rule, it seems to me that these religious liberty laws are designed to do just the opposite: they justify treating others as we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

For the past 43 years, since my rabbinic ordination in 1972, I have been a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which is the organization of America’s Reform Rabbis. We have been known to take courageous and leading positions in the arena of social reform and social justice. We went on record in support of the LGBT community as early as 1977 and have since broadened our support to include full equality.

In taking stands such as these and in supporting these stands with resolutions, Reform Rabbis and Reform Judaism have also vigorously supported and defended American religious liberty. The CCAR proudly supported the first RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) when it passed in the early 1990’s. We felt at that time that the search for religious liberty by a legitimately discriminated-against minority was real, and we were active in our support of their rights.

Recently, however, it was a much different story. The CCAR recognized in 2015 that when the Indiana and Arkansas Legislatures were in the process of adopting their state equivalents of RFRA, legislators were motivated by an animus against the LGBT community. That is, the rabbis in the Reform Movement of Judaism recognized that the term “religious liberty” was being misused to justify discrimination against the LGBT community and their families. It was plain and simple bigotry in the name of religion.

From the Central Conference of American Rabbis Statement on Misusing Religious Freedom to Justify Discrimination: “Recalling that religion was misused to justify American slavery—and later, Jim Crow—the CCAR insists that religion must not again be used as a state-sanctioned excuse for discrimination, against LGBT people or any person.”

Because Jews in America were at one time—and in some places even more recently—discriminated against in the public square even in this land of liberty for all, we have tended to stand in solidarity with those who face religious-justified discrimination in the public square today.

I was happy to be among Reform rabbis in Arkansas and Indiana who recently joined with so many other clergy in vigorously opposing state legislative efforts to enshrine bigotry under the guise of “religious liberty.