Preached as the conclusion of the 2020 Dr. Thomas Stricklin Lecture Series in Church History.
Attention. Salute. Pledge. “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word, I will make it a lamp unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”
Attention. Salute. Pledge. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Attention. Salute. Pledge. “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands; one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and in love.”
From the time I was 5 years old, every summer for two weeks during Vacation Bible School in our church, I placed my hand over my heart and repeated those three pledges. You probably noticed that, at that time, the words “under God” had not yet been inserted into the pledge.
Little did I know that I would spend a major part of my life searching for and grappling with truth at the intersection of those three pledges. Repeatedly I have tried to resolve struggles prompted by conflicts between my faith and my civic responsibly in a way that I could remain true to the Bible, my faith, and my nation. The First Amendment to our constitution has provided guidance on how to be true to my faith and faithful to the words defining religious freedom.
What has gone on inside me personally is now playing out publicly; and it is not pretty. A quiet though fiery fight over the meaning of religious freedom is remaking America. The time I have spent preparing to deliver the 2020 Stricklin Lectures compelled me to review my long and continuing pilgrimage of working on religious freedom and questioning whether or not I could reconfirm my conclusions related to the importance of our first freedom.
For years Christians and Jews have debated over whether or not the Messiah has already appeared on earth or is yet to come. The proper spirit with which to discuss religious freedom was epitomized for me by my dear, now deceased friend, Arthur Hertzberg, a rabbinical leader in Conservative Judaism. Arthur said, “I am waiting for the end days when the Messiah will appear or reappear. At the moment of the Messiah’s appearance, I will make my way, if I can, to the front row of the welcoming committee on that day. I will very politely and very deferentially say to the Messiah, ‘Forgive me, but may I ask you a question? Is this your first visit to our world or is it your second visit?’” My rabbi friend continued, “Until that time, I am willing to bet my life that the Messiah will say it is his first visit here; but I also am willing to give my life to protect the freedom and lives of all those people who believe the Messiah will say it is his second visit.”
I want briefly to share with you five important truths that I have learned, given thanks for, and tried to live by during all of my work for religious freedom.
Freedom is religion’s best friend
There is no such thing as mandatory religion. I will always remember how my heart broke as I watched a baptism forced on a young woman by her new husband. I had the same sensation when a dear Jewish friend described to me the damage done to her life when she was forced to say she was a Christian. To this moment, that friend fears the vision of a cross. Meaningful religious decisions require personal freedom and volitional thinking even if otherwise a person is in one kind of prison or another.
The founders of our nation bequeathed to us a secular government appreciative of religion but always independent of religion. They made religious freedom the cornerstone of all of our other freedoms and the stability of our democracy.
The great patriot, Thomas Paine, who said long ago, “Give me liberty or give me death” and, as if responding to today’s news” remarked, “These are the times that try men’s souls” also told us, “Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty . . . As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seem nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”
The architects of our nation’s structure knew from experience that an intermingling of religion, government, and politics would weaken each one and produce a crippled nation. Watch out! The mindset of religious extremism is prone to deceptions in which extremists cease serving God and start playing God, losing touch with the value of diversity and devoting themselves to an oppressive uniformity, and becoming blind to the reality that they are hurting their own religion rather than advancing it. Be careful!
Religion, government, and politics cannot be separated in an individual's thoughts, souls, beliefs, and priorities though a clear and definitive separation between these three institutions is imperative for the good of the nation and the living of our days.
History is replete with documentation of the truth that every time religious institutions and government institutions have become entangled, the religious institutions have lost their authority and compromised their integrity. When we mix politics and religion, what we get is politics.
If the religions in our world do not learn to live together with respect for one another and cooperate with each other along with accepting people who have no religion, our world will never have peace. And as the largest religion in the world, Christians have the urgent responsibility to model religious freedom and walk the path of peace.
I have come to see the religious liberty clauses in the First Amendment as products of sheer genius—a remarkable formula for cooperation in the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world. How we honor and obey religious freedom significantly impacts our values, priorities, citizenship, health care, sexuality, women’s bodies, elections, foreign affairs, and interest in peace.
Religious freedom is never secure.
Religious freedom is never a done deal. Far too many people want religious freedom only for their religion but not for the religions of others.
My friends we are at a pivotal moment when it comes to the health of religious freedom in our nation. Our forebearers saw religious freedom like democracy as an experiment. Both remain an experiment today. Not in my lifetime have I seen the frightening fragility of this experiment. The last word on this issue has not yet been spoken. Freedom and religious freedom are not yet secure. To celebrate freedom without protecting freedom ultimately is to lose freedom.
In Support of Religious Freedom, What do WE Need to Do?
We Need Education
We now have two or three, maybe more, generations of young people and middle-age adults in this nation who do not understand religious liberty and thus have little interest in the attacks on the wall of separation between the institutions of religion and the institutions of government.
Well financed and powerful religious and political leaders are tirelessly working to change the definition of religious freedom that is in our constitution. They are traversing this nation peddling lies—
there is no guarantee of church-state separation in the constitution, they say, emphasizing that contemporary Americans should fulfill the founders’ vision of a Christian nation, a nation governed by Christian principles. Very few people challenge the revisionists because they do not know the vision, the articulation of the principle, and the actual provisions of the founders of this government. That must change or everything else will change.
In this religiously pluralistic nation, religious liberty must be a non-negotiable. Amazingly, the founders perceptively prepared for and intended to provide for religious pluralism. When the Virginia House of Delegates debated Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom,” someone proposed to amend his words “the holy author of our religion” by adding “Jesus Christ.” In his Autobiography, Jefferson recalled, “the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan (Muslim), the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
We need to take a long look again at this great gift, talk about it together, and monitor each other to stay true to religious freedom. Education is not enough, though.
We Need Citizens’ Support
We have to work while we teach lest we allow the development of a situation in which it is too late for us to teach or we are forbidden to teach. Values are not worth a flip if they are not translated into actions. It is in the implementation of values that we make a difference for good. It is time to act supportively to religious freedom.
We Need Political Action
Time-consuming, energy-demanding political work must be done to preserve religious liberty. The battle is not ideological. Strengthening and defending religious freedom should be a bipartisan effort. People are trying to change the constitution, alter the definition of freedom in our constitution. We have to pay attention and mobilize people to protect our first freedom. Sometimes that will mandate careful strategizing and hard-ball political action.
We Need Judicial Preservation
The importance of the judiciary staying true to the constitution rather than responding to the pressures of fear-based, selfish and often self-righteous public expressions of religious bias is crucial. Nominations for federal judgeships are not in our hands but we must carefully examine what is happening in the judiciary and voice our opposition when necessary.
I think I know the questions that may be running through some of your minds. Who and how can do what I am suggesting must be done? There is only one correct answer to those questions and it is in the preamble to the constitution. We the People!
We are the government. We are the people to do this work; and now is the time. We have to become evangelists for religious freedom helping others to see the perils for the integrity of religion and the demise of vitality in our democracy if this constitutional provision continues to be weakened and ignored.
Let me be starkly honest and painfully personal with you. I know this has been a difficult year in many ways. Since the days I retired—first from the presidency of Interfaith Alliance and then from the pastorate of Northminster Church—
life has not been easy for me. All at the same time, the four issues that I care most about and to which I have devoted most of my life are in more trouble today than they were when I started doing this work over 60 years ago. That makes me sad. The realization is discouraging. Reality is that advocacy for progressive religion, protection for religious freedom, arguing for love as the highest and most primal value, and calling for responsible citizenship in this nation are under fire by strategies and less favorable with the populous than I find tolerable.
Some days I want to quit—just go away, stop paying attention to the news, relax. Because I am realistic, I am weary and worried. I am tired of people who feel that thinking is a sin. I am tired of individuals who ignore the priority of freedom and automatically assume that anyone who favors the institutional separation of religion and government is a radical liberal opposed to religion. I am tired of religious leaders selling their souls for a mess of political recognition provided by politicians eager to use religious leaders in the singular cause of their re-election to public office. I am tired of deep divisions within our nation and the religions that should be peacemakers are causing the divisions. I am tired of political partisanship on steroids and the erosive effect that has on our democracy. I am weary of looking for true patriots who place the welfare of the nation over the success of their political party. I am tired to the point of hopelessness regarding the place of love and its priority in the basic institutions of our society and in what should be the most intimate relationships between individuals. Surely many of you feel fatigue as well as the temptation to quit.
Now, here is the challenge that stands in front of me like a bolder. I am a religious person, a Christian, and I am an American, in that order by the way. Neither my faith nor my patriotism has within it any justification for opting out—quitting, letting “them” have it. Just the opposite really.
My friends, we can’t quit; it’s not an option. We can’t quit!
Either progressive religion dedicated to religious freedom will be embraced or we will become a nation even more divided than we are now with endless struggles between fundamentalists applying pressure in multiple ways to dictate what everybody else must do, think, read, and say and people who have lost interest in religion resisting with whatever level and form of power it takes to save their lives from a dictatorship of fanaticism.
Either people will learn the appropriate relationship between religion and government as well as the necessity of religious freedom or our nation will return to a pre-First Amendment understanding of religion and government in which each compromises if not ruins, the other. Internationally we will either learn the appropriate relationship between religion and government or the future will be filled with escalating conflicts between religions and between religions and governments that often turn violent.
Either love will find its proper place of sovereignty in people’s lives, citizenship, and work or we will see a continued deterioration of simple empathy and compassion, no help for the poorest and weakest among us, a lack of conscience about wars that allow us to hire soldiers and continue with our own agendas while fighting is fierce, and a mechanical type of depersonalized relationships in which people think going it alone is better than the trouble of living together and utilitarianism becomes the primary principle in sexual relationships, and doing what is easiest, least troublesome, and only in good times will take the place of the passion of love that fulfills dreams, births children with integrity, and gives society a goal which most would rather reach whatever the cost than to lose at any cost.
Either we will get back to the experiment of democracy, practice the art of compromise for the common good, and cross all lines that prevent cooperation or we will lose our democracy, assault our freedom, and assure failure for the grand vision that gives breath, courage, and strength to our constitutional way of life.
I guarantee you that Marj and Tom Stricklin would join me in setting before you a mission that will positively impact our city and our nation.
I first learned about religious freedom in a Sunday evening youth program called “Training Union,” which met in the dark basement of the fundamentalist church of my childhood. Inspired by lessons on religious liberty as practiced by Roger Williams in Rhode Island, I learned the proper relationship between institutions of religion and institutions of government. That is what a church, this church, can do. Think of the positive changes in which this church has been involved.
In 1772, a Baptist pastor named Isaac Backus, under threats of imprisonment like those realized by many of his colleagues, refused to pay the government’s tax on religion. Through his tireless organizational and political work, Backus brought the issue of religious liberty to the attention of the Continental Congress. John Adams warned this Baptist minister that he might just as well try to alter the course of the sun as to win the Congress’ support for his ideas. But Backus would not be stopped. Backus, to the amazement of John Adams, spoke to the presiding officer of the Congress and got a Congressional resolution setting religious liberty grievances before the general assembly of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eventually, when Massachusetts wrote a new constitution, Backus was invited to draft a bill of rights, which focused on a guarantee of religious liberty.
Sixteen years later (in 1788), John Leland, another Baptist pastor, mobilized other Baptist pastors in Virginia to question the wisdom of ratifying a United States Constitution that did not contain an explicit statement on religious freedom. It became clear that someone on the committee needed to run for public office, Leland agreed to seek election as a delegate to the Convention on Ratification. His opponent would be James Madison, a man widely known for his support of religious liberty.
To everyone’s surprise, during the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Madison balked at approving specific clauses on religious liberty. Everybody was upset. Leland was ready to run for office.
Recognizing Leland’s impassioned intent, people arranged a meeting between him and Madison. Leland voiced the Baptist perspective on religious liberty calling for a constitutional guarantee of complete freedom of conscience, complete freedom to practice religious beliefs, and an effective separation of church and state. Leland’s presentation convinced Madison of the need for an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee religious liberty. The two men separated with Madison committed to support the Baptist position and Leland agreeing to withdraw his name as a candidate for election. The rest you know as history. Madison brought the matter of religious liberty to the attention of the Congress, the members of which ultimately adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution.
That is my heritage; that is our heritage. Remembering that past, we see with clarity the challenge of the present. The shape of the future will be determined by the actions or the passivity of the kind of people who are interested in these lectures.
In the spring of 1998 Walter Cronkite—known as “the most trusted man in America”—at a meeting in NYC, took me aside and said to me, “In the work you are doing, nothing less is at stake than democracy as we have known it.” Those words were in my mind every day I had the privilege of working in this nation strengthening and defending religious freedom knowing that nothing less was at stake than the freedom, integrity, and vitality of both our religion and our nation.
For me, it all started in that small church where people wanted to preserve religious freedom in this land. Where will it start for you? You have heard the challenges. My friends, this is our moment and we are the people who better grab it.
I hope that a few words akin to those inscribed on a church in Leicester, England at a difficult time can be spoken about us:
“In the year 1654 when all things were, throughout this nation, either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded and built this church. He it is whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times.”
The promises that I made in Vacation Bible School as a five-year old child not knowing what all religious freedom meant any more than being aware of the depths of what faith meant remain in my heart, mind, and actions. Today, with more understanding of both, though still eager to know more, I pledge allegiance to my faith and the journey on which it continues to take me and to religious freedom and the honor I have had to work for all people to be free— so help me God.