"Being Baptist: Religious Freedom" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
Matthew 22:15-22 & Revelation 13:1-10
This morning is the last week of our series on being Baptist and on this final Sunday, we’re going to explore the two things you’re never supposed to talk about in polite company, religion, and politics. The fourth of Walter B. Shurden’s Four Fragile Freedoms, he defines Religious Freedom as “the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion, insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar.”
Often this topic is broadly discussed in terms of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. And just as often our barometer for deciding what is a violation of religious liberty depends on our politics. But what does the bible say about religious liberty? And what role have Baptists played in making religious liberty part of the fabric of American life?
To begin, I want to be clear that “it is a relatively modern and bold conviction to affirm that people should be able to believe without coercion, to practice their faith without constraint, and to spread their faith without hindrance.”
Biblically, there’s no one approach to religious freedom. This morning’s reading from Revelation speaks to the author’s - John of Patmos - fear of persecution and his advocacy to resist the state “to the point of martyrdom.” In Romans 13 Paul tells his audience that all people should be “subject to the governing authorities.” This advice was written to a community that wasn’t being threatened by the state and Paul therefore “accents the legitimacy of the state.”
Then there are Jesus’ famous words from Matthew about giving to Caesar versus giving to God. This approach “legitimizes but [limits] the state” and was the approach most often used by our Baptist ancestors because of their understanding of the nature of God “who dared to create us as free beings…”
Throughout the Old Testament God “is set against persons and institutions that restricted the freedom of people. And the entire point of Jesus’ ministry was to free people from all that would hold them back from fulfilling their potential under God.”
This means that freedom “is more than a constitutional right or governmental gift”. It comes from God and is the foundation our Baptist ancestors built on. Added to this foundation is the belief that humans are God’s greatest creation and made in God’s image, so “to deny [someone’s] freedom of conscience...is to debase God’s creation.”
So how did our ancestors define religious freedom? There are three dimensions:
One, freedom of religion is a commitment to liberty not just toleration. This is the difference between a concession versus a right, expediency versus a principle.
Second, religious freedom is for all - even those who want nothing to do with religion.
Third, religious freedom means there must be a separation of church and state. Rather than church above state - medieval era - or church under state - 20th-century communist countries - or church with the state - Anglican Church in England - having a separation between the two can also be understood as a “free church in a free state” or “church and state side by side.”
Baptists have been invested in religious freedom since our earliest days when Thomas Helwys, who you’ll remember from the first week of this series, moved his newly minted Baptist flock back to England from Amsterdam. Once settled in London Helwys took up the issue of religious freedom, writing A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity in 1612. Most historians agree this was the “first plea for complete religious freedom” written in English.
Apparently being a man who enjoyed taking risks, Helwys sent a copy of his writing to King James I with a handwritten note reminding the king that “the king is a mortal man and not God” and “therefore has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects.” That note along with the then “heretical concept” of full religious freedom Helyws wrote about didn’t go over well and he was soon after thrown in jail where he died in 1616.
In this country, men such as Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, Isaac Backus, and John Leland fought for religious liberty and often paid the price. Isaac Backus “was one of the most influential Baptist spokesmen for religious liberty during the colonial period and during the infancy of the United States.” Along with other a handful of other men he founded a Grievance Committee “in 1772 to aid Baptists in their struggle for religious freedom” and this was likely the “first organized religious lobby in America.”
John Leland was a Baptist pastor who worked with future President James Madison to end religious persecution in Virginia. Later, when the Constitution was sent to the states to be ratified, Leland led a group of Virginians who opposed the document because it didn’t include a Bill of Rights and thus had no protections for religious freedom.
Historians don’t know all the details, but it’s likely that after much campaigning against the Constitution Leland and Madison, who at this point were running for election to the ratification convention, met again and worked out a deal. Think “The Room Where It Happened” in Hamilton.
Madison promised to support an amendment for religious liberty after the Constitution was ratified and based on this promise Leland agreed to support the unamended Constitution. Virginia ratified the new American Constitution in 1789 and not long after “Madison introduced to Congress the Bill of Rights, the first of which guarantees religious liberty.”
So, you see, Baptists have been active and instrumental in the fight for religious freedom since the earliest days of our country. But where do Baptists stand on religious freedom now? Well, as with all things Baptist this depends very much on what kind of Baptist you are. George W. Truett, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Dallas was a passionate defender of religious liberty for all people, saying in a sermon delivered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1920, “that Jesus’ word about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s was one of the ‘most revolutionary and history-making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once and for all, marked the divorcement of church and state.”
Several decades later in 1984 Truett’s successor at FBC Dallas, then the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention, was a gentleman named W.A. Criswell. Asked about the separation of church and state during a TV interview Criswell took a very different view than Truett saying in part, “I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination.”
I mention these comments from two men filling the same role at the same church to highlight the change that took place within Baptist life in 60 years. Truett and Criswell were both Southern Baptist pastors. Both were well educated, well respected, and had long tenures at FBC Dallas. And yet they took startlingly opposite views of the separation of church and state, which as I outlined is fundamental to the Baptist identity in this country.
Quite a few things contribute to this whiplash-inducing change, including the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 90s so it would be easy to dismiss this as something only our Southern siblings deal with. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we face just as insidious a threat. It doesn’t just affect us as a progressive Baptist church in the South, but more generally as Christians in America.
Called “Civil Religion” or “Religious Nationalism” it’s the movement we’ve seen picking up steam in the past few years that fuses Christianity and American civic life. This way of thinking holds that to be a good American you must be a Christian. And it demands that the government give Christianity special privileges. It fuses “pietism and patriotism” in all sorts of scary ways and is typified by using the Bible as a prop or switching out Jesus’ name for specifically American concepts like the flag while quoting scripture. If nothing else these blatant examples of Christian Nationalism should offend all people of faith, particularly us as Baptists with our ancestors’ dedication to religious freedom.
I’m going to put a pin in the discussion of Christian Nationalism here as it’s something we need to talk about more in the months to come. The Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, Amanda Tyler, will be here with us in November for the Sticklin Lectures so we’ll come back to this topic in the fall. But where does that leave us this morning? After all the 4th of July is just a week away. So, what is the Good News this morning?
My friends, the Good News this morning is “that the state is always subordinate to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” The authority of Christ should never be confused with the authority of the state and while it is possible to be a good American and good Christian at the same time, you don’t have to be a Christian to be an American.
Our Baptist ancestors knew that. They worked tirelessly to make it possible for everyone in this country to have freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. Now it’s time for us to pick up their torch and continue the work. To work from our historic Baptist roots. To fight for all people. And to always remember that Christ is Lord of all.