Religious liberty: A lesson hard-won through oppression


Two Quakers Hung, but Mary Dyer is Freed, Boston, 1658

In my previous post I wrote briefly on the new Justice Department religious liberty task force, announced Monday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The AG’s words in making that announcement, I wrote, revealed an intent steeped in fear and intolerance, and having little to do with true religious liberty:

Sessions spoke Monday of a “dangerous movement” of secularism and a “changing cultural climate” that must be “confronted and defeated.” His words stir fear among evangelical Christians, as if the Body of Christ needs Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to stand between the faithful and those scary sinners out there (i.e., the people Jesus Christ preached to and led in his ministry).

I stand by that portion of my post, with one exception: I was, in hindsight, unfair to many who bear the title “evangelical Christian.” Evangelicals are by no means a homogeneous group, are not uniform or unique in susceptibility to fear of “the other” and are not united in supporting Sessions’ new task force.

To be sure, Christian nationalists like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham have built their empires by stoking the kind of fear ginned up by Sessions when he spoke Monday of a “dangerous movement” of secularism and a “changing cultural climate” that must be “confronted and defeated.”

But other evangelicals were quick to speak out against the task force, as an unnecessary mingling of government and religion that risks injuring, rather than protecting, religious liberty — especially for those who do not fall within Sessions’ narrow definition of Christian faith.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a Baptist minister in Durham, North Carolina, wrote in an NBC News opinion piece Tuesday that the new task force represents a dangerous incursion of the government into religious liberty.

“It is not enough for Christian nationalists to freely exercise their vision of a good life,” Wilson-Hartgrove wrote. “In the name of ‘liberty,’ they want the right to discriminate against those with whom they disagree.”

“As a Christian minister myself, I’m both offended by this abuse of faith and troubled by the lack of moral outrage against it,” Wilson-Hartgrove added. “Whatever our political commitments, the Bible calls Christians to love God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, raised additional concerns in a Thursday article in Baptist News.

Tyler agreed with some aspects of the task force, and the general notion that Christianity is at a point of crisis, but added “I fear that what is most in jeopardy is widespread support for religious liberty for all.”

“In aligning the government closely with a narrow viewpoint on religious freedom – which fails to balance concern for protection of the rights of others with the right to exercise one’s religion – the Trump administration is sowing division where there should be unity on our first freedom,” Tyler said.

Tyler went on to advocate inclusion, tolerance and the very separation of church and state that is often bemoaned by evangelicals:

“We will continue to call for a full understanding of religious liberty for all, which demands that government neither inhibit nor promote religion and its practice,” Tyler wrote. “If religious freedom is going to survive – let alone flourish – in our pluralistic and rapidly changing society, we must all advocate for a more complete and inclusive understanding of religious liberty for people of all faith traditions and those who do not adhere to any religion.”

Some may read Tyler’s and Wilson-Hartgrove’s comments and think them a departure from Baptist theology and the evangelical world view in general. But, their comments reflect a deep understanding of the history of their denomination, and of other denominations in our nation’s early history.

The earliest history of the Church in the colonies is a history of religious oppression, brought on and enforced by state-sanctioned religion. And Baptists were some of the earliest Christian faithful to suffer under this oppression.

When the London Company drafted the 1606 “Articles, Instructions and Orders” for Jamestown, the charter required colonists to “provide that the true word, and service of God and Christian faith be preached.” This obviously ruled out any other faith among the colonists, but it didn’t stop at merely specifying Christianity. The charter added a requirement that the “true word” be “according to the doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within our real me of England.”

That meant every aspect of faith in the colony would be dictated by the Church of England. No others need apply. Any detractors could be jailed, beaten, have their property seized or worse.

In 1612 Governor Thomas Dale set forth “Lawes Divine, Moral and Martial” that prescribed the death penalty for any who might “speak impiously of the Trinity … or against the known articles of the Christian faith.” New immigrants to the colony were required to report to the Anglican minister for “examination in the faith.” Those who refused faced a daily whipping “until he makes acknowledgement.”

“I would carry fire in one hand and faggots in the other to burn all the Quakers in the world.” — The Rev. John Norton, Puritan Boston preacher, 1606-1663.

I am a devoted Episcopalian. As such, it is important for me to remember that my Church once was used as a weapon of intolerance, precisely because the government and church were intertwined — in much the way the new federal task force seems to seek. Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, Adventists and other denominations falling outside the narrow confines of accepted faith in early America should, like Tyler and Wilson-Hartgrove, remember that intermingling of church and state has in the past caused, and could again end in, oppression for people of faith.

That fact was not lost on James Madison in 1773, when he discovered a group of Baptists had been jailed near his home for their faith. He described the punishment as a “diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution.” It was a memory that would drive him to include separation of church and state in the Virginia Constitution, and again at the First Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Madison’s personal encounter was one of many such grievous acts of oppression that led Baptists to be among the most ardent advocates of separating church and state, in the state constitutions and eventually the U.S. Constitution.

Madison outlined the risks of intertwining church and state in his 1785 “A Memorial and Remonstrance.”

“Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions,” Madison wrote, “may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

Thomas Jefferson echoed that sentiment in his 1785 “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

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

Jefferson, writing 233 years before Sessions, predicted the AG’s argument. To Sessions’ arguments of culture war and the need for the government to protect faith, Jefferson tells us individual religious practice is the concern of the individual and her or his church. The state has no concern in the matter, and none of us are harmed by the choices of others.

George Washington was called on to address the same question in 1789, when a group of Presbyterian elders complained to him the Constitution did not acknowledge “the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.”

In his response on Nov. 2, 1789, Washington replied flatly that “the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”

Piety, Washington tells us, is a matter that does not need the government to select, protect and advance one form over another. Piety exists between the people, their chosen clergy and God.

In response to Sessions’ calls for government to protect the faithful, Washington was as blunt as Jefferson. The task of uplifting people in the faith, and protecting the teachings of the Church within the broader realm of secular society: That is a task solely for the Church and its ministers, Washington insisted.

“To the guidance of the ministers of the gospel this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed,” Washington told the concerned Presbyterians. “It will be your care to instruct the ignorant, and to reclaim the devious…”

The Framers were not ignorant of secularism, or of other faiths. And, they were men of faith. But, they left provisions of faith — and government mechanisms to protect and advance faith — out of our Constitution, and expressly forbade the same. They did so not because they wanted faith to flounder in our republic. They did so because they knew the only way to ensure religious liberty was to keep government out of the matter entirely.

That is a lesson hard-won by the Framers, and generations of faithful Christians who suffered persecution at the hands of state-sanctioned religion before them. It is a lesson we would be foolhardy to ignore today.

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