Friday, August 12, 2011

On Freedom of Religion

On Freedom of Religion, or One Thing the Baptists Got Right.
I had the following conversation on Facebook the other day (names have been omitted)...
And if that's too small for you to read, here's a recap:
FRIEND: We've taken God out of our schools and the the Christian beliefs that this great country was founded are getting pushed more and more out of areas they are needed the most.
ANN: Just because the law won't allow one religion (Christianity) to be the official religion of the public school system doesn't mean God isn't in schools. What if the government decided Hinduism should be the main religion in school and every morning there was a prayer to Krishna over the intercom and little statues with food offerings for them outside the cafeteria? There's a reason we have separation of church and state. If you want your child to attend school where Christianity is overtly practiced then send them to a Christian school. Our founding fathers were indeed Christians, but their theology was more deism and in NO WAY resembles the Christianity (especially the conservative Christianity) of today. Furthermore, they founded America because they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs in England and wanted to create a country where anyone could worship freely... so...
YEARS ago (in blog years it was, like, way back at the beginning of time) I posted an email I wrote to a minister/friend who asked me about the Christian right and why I thought they got it wrong. This was during the re-election of Bush when things were really getting out of hand. I made the following argument about Freedom of Religion:
We live in America, a country that is founded on free rights for everyone. I love this. I hate it though when people call us a "christian nation." We are not a christian nation and perhaps shouldn't be. I know the conservative christians are gasping now, but hear me out. Christian nations don't allow for dialogue among people of different views, christian nations have a history of oppression (the crusades, germany in ww2, england with regard to ireland, etc.) - why would we want to live in a nation like that? God created us with free will - wouldn't he want us to live in a world that allows for that? Plus, in America, I can talk freely with my hindu and muslim and atheist friends about my faith, and they can talk to me about theirs. We can dialogue and discuss what we have in common and what makes us distinct. The Muslim faith is growing across the world and in America. If you have a school where a muslim or a hindu is elected student body president, do you want his prayer to be prayed for your son and all the other students? If you want prayer in school then you better be ready to be more accepting of all types of people and all types of prayers (and time for dialogue to develop!!). But most people wanting prayer in schools want "christian" prayer in schools. They have an oppressive, exclusive agenda. Besides that, look at our models for people who pray. I don't care if George Bush says he prays every day. So did Hitler!!
I pretty much have the same opinion now. Maybe this is because I'm a liberal (so the slurs are slung), but maybe it's because I'm a Baptist.
You see, Baptists were founded on several guiding distinctives among which are the following: priesthood of all believers, autonomy of the local church, soul competency, and separation of Church and State.
Non-Baptists or people not familiar with protestantism may wonder at a couple of these distictives, but "Separation of Church and State," we are all familiar with (or should be - do they still teach that in schools? Cause I'm pretty sure Gov. Perry tried to take it out of Texas textbooks), as it became part of our Bill of Rights, thanks to, you guessed it, Baptist John Leland (though Jefferson received most of the credit).
Here's some other notable Baptist "fighters" from way back when. From the BJC website (the Baptist Joint Committee works in Washington to secure freedom of religion for all people): After establishing the first Baptist church on English soil, Thomas Helwys (1550-1615) authored a seminal treatise on religious liberty, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612), and sent a copy to King James I. In his inscription, he wrote: "The king is a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them." For his trouble, Helwys, along with his wife, Joan, was severely persecuted. He later died in Newgate Prison.
Wow. Persecuted just because he wanted to do a Baptist church plant? And then he died in prison.
And check out this Baptist... Roger Williams (1603-1689) came from England to Massachusetts Bay in 1631 preaching and teaching "soul freedom" - the notion that faith could not be dictated by any government authority, but must be nurtured freely and expressed directly to God. He advocated a "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." The theocrats in Massachusetts were so offended that they kicked Williams out of the colony. He trekked to what would become Rhode Island and founded a city he called "Providence," because he judged that God's providence had directed him there.
And here's where my FRIEND gets it right. While many of the early colonizers fled England because of persecution, many turned right around and began persecuting their neighbors whose (variation of protestantism) faith was different than theirs. Because we never learn. Because history repeats itself. Because the oppressed when he receives power often becomes the oppressor. We demand rights for ourselves and then turn around and trample on the rights of those around us.
Thankfully, Leland, Jefferson and Madison were discerning enough to establish freedom of religion as an essential right due to any man or woman (of course, these rights would be reserved for men and women of the "Caucasian" persuasion, but no one's perfect).
Part of what established who these early Baptists were as advocates and protesters and people who spoke out on behalf of their fellow young Americans was their convictions as Baptists. Articulated by Baptist historian Walter Shurden, Baptists are unique in the Four Freedoms they embrace:

  • Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body
  • Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)
  • Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual
  • Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; separation of church and state is often called the "civil corollary" of religious freedom
Now you understand why I wonder if I believe in separation of church and state because I'm a freedom-lover or because I'm a Baptist. The big picture: you get to decide your own faith and how to practice it. I can't deny you that right nor can the state.
Awesome. Amen.
On the other hand, this sucks. What Martin Luther set in motions hundreds of years ago when he demanded (among 98 other things) that the common person have access to the Bible herself is the folk religion (arguably the religious right) prevailing in America today. In other words, this not very Biblical "pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, God-helps-those-who-help-themselves, love-your-family-hate-your-enemy, I-can't-tell-you-the-Ten-Commandments-but-by-God-it-better-be-hanging-in-the-courthouse" Christianity modeled by the religious right is a direct result of Luther's insistance that the biblical scholars (who also happened to be horribly corrupt church leaders) get out of the way and let each person meet God where they are. Check out this article on "phantom Biblical passages" where culture has corrupted what the Bible actually says, or doesn't say.
In other words, soul competancy... religious freedom...? They're a double edged sword.
But that's just what the Baptists believed.
So what was the predominant religion of our forefathers? Well, according to Benjamin Franklin's autobiography (thank you Billy Jewell Bible School "Responsible Self" class 1996): My parents had early given me religious Impressions [Roman Catholocism], and brought me through my Childhood piously in the Dissenting Way. But I was scarce 15 when, after doubting by turns of several Points as I found them disputed in the different Books I read I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my Hands.... It happened that they wrought an Effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them: For the Arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much Stronger than the Refutations. In short I soon became a thorough Deist. Revelation had indeed no weight with me as such; but I entertain'd an Opinion, that tho' certain Actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them; yet probably those Actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own Natures, all the Circumstances of things considered.
You still with me?
And how about Thomas Jefferson? Well, you've probably heard of the Jefferson Bible... Our third president's cut and paste version of the text (explicitly leaving out Jesus' miracles). While I don't have a biography of him on hand, Jefferson's move through religion (he hated the Catholic church, thought clergymen to all be corrupt and rejected most Christian doctrine including the doctrine of the Trinity) was generally based on his belief in Jesus as a Moral Teacher and God a material (not Spirit). In private letters, Jefferson refers to himself as a "Christian" in 1803, "a sect by myself" in 1819, an "Epicurean" later that year, a "Materialist" in 1820 and finally a "Unitarian by myself" in 1825. Most scholars would just classify him as a Diest who liked to cut up his Bible.
Needless to say, he was too liberal (in the true sense of the word - as such I, truth be told, am not) to attend the Episcopal Church of America at that time, let alone Willow Creek or The Potter's House or Saddleback or Salem Lutheran Church or Wasilla Bible Church or Trinity United Church of Christ or Wyatt Park Baptist Church or even First Baptist Church of Austin Texas.
Do I need to go on? John Adams - Unitarian. Alexander Hamilton - Evangelical Presbyterian who tried to start "Christian Welfare Societies" for the poor. James Madison - attended an Epsicopalian church (but most scholars consider him a Deist as well). George Washington - wouldn't take communion and never mentioned Jesus Christ in any of his writings. Considered a Deist but since he left virtually no writings in which he wrote about God, church, theology or religion (twice in his life he commented on a sermon), we don't really know.
So what then, about the founding father's faith do you FRIEND and all other people seeking to get back to those times, is so appealing? The fact that they picked and chose what they wanted to believe despite orthodoxy (although most conservative churches do a similar thing) or the fact that they intellectualized and internalized their faith, brooding over it, writing about it, and wrestling with it? The fact is, they believed that faith should be the choice of the people, paid for by the people and attended freely by the people so much so that they believed it is an essential right afforded to every human being and protected and ensured by the government.
Amen. On Freedom of Religion. And why I think the Baptists got this one right.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for arguing this not only intelligently, but beautifully! - Jennifer

Anonymous said...

well written with many good points.

C. F.

Anonymous said...

Ann, I LOVE your blog. I LOVE that you wrote it from the perspective of those who have strong religious convictions, and yet understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. I love that you referenced some of the historical events that influenced the reasoning that the founding fathers had in being clear in wanting that separation. It is brilliant piece! As a student of history, I know that we have been through many periods where reason seemed all but lost, and the idea of secularism was greatly in question. What scares me is the silencing that seems to be occurring within the GOP. I am solidly a democrat, so there is no chance that I will not be voting for Obama. At the same time, when I see the more moderate wing of the GOP, like Tim Pawlenty, dropping out, and someone like Mitt Romney, who, like him or not, probably has the best business and economic credentials to go up against Obama, but is "the wrong religion", it underscores the "no compromise" attitude of the party, and their willingness to turn civil liberties on its head! We are living in scary times, and I am worried that my children are not going to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and choices in their lives, that I have enjoyed in mine! Keep writing, Ann! You are awesome!

Anonymous said...

wonderful...analytical...intelligent...reasonable...historically referenced...well defended...and not blinded by ideological prejudice.