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America's First Freedom
by Dan Day
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC
Sermon preached at First Baptist on July 4, 2004
 
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As we Americans celebrate our political freedom today, its surely appropriate also to revisit our first freedom, religious freedom. Too quickly we forget that it was the desire for religious freedom that motivated our ancestors to seek these shores.  They wanted to 'get government off their back' so the soul could be free to relate to God as it would.  And too easily we forget that at least some of our founding fathers understood religious freedom as being the initial and essential freedom.  

In 1789, while the Constitutional Convention was in session in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson was in Paris.  When the Convention finished its work James Madison promptly sent Jefferson a copy of the proposed Constitution and Jefferson just as promptly responded, first with his compliments and then his objections. I will now add what I do not like, wrote Jefferson. First, the omission of a bill of rights providing clearlyfor the freedom of religion and other liberties appropriate to a republic.

I dont believe it was coincidence that Jefferson listed religious freedom first, for religious freedom is a primal freedom.  To believe and to practice what you will about God and religion - is this not the freedom that nourishes and supports all other freedoms?

It is a God-given right, actually - for the soul, the conscience, the religious faculties of a person to be free. Holy scripture tells us God grants such liberty to each person, for within the Bible there is no such thing as coerced, mandatory faith. The only faith our Bible acknowledges as valid is freely chosen faith.  The Bible asks for trust, for love, for worship from the heartand these cannot be procured by threats or compulsion.  And whenever in human history a government has attempted to mandate or orchestrate religious observances, trouble has followed.

Jeffersons generation knew this.  They were only a generation or so away from the beheadings and imprisonments and tortures performed in the name of religion all over Europe.  They had seen what happens when a change in king or queen brought with it an enforced change in religious practiceswhen church and state were one.  But even knowing this, they had been a party to importing the vile practice to America.  Virtually every American colony or city had established its own religious rules, mercilessly enforcing conformity while exiling or punishing dissenters.  In 1651 the city fathers of Boston laid 30 lashes on the bare back of a Baptist who dared to invade their Puritan territory.  In 1659 the first of four Quakers was hanged in Boston Common.  In 1707 a Presbyterian minister was thrown into a New York jail for the crime of preaching his version of the Christian gospel.  It was a sorry and ugly era of our history.

So it is not surprising that Jeffersons wasnt the only voice raised to demand a guarantee of religious liberty within the founding documents of this new nation.  And I take great pride in noting that Baptist voices were some of the most insistent of those voices.  Thus, James Madison in June of 1789 - making good on a promise he made to the Baptists of Virginia - introduced to Congress a first amendment to the Constitution.  For four months the delegates wrestled with his initial forty words and finally boiled it down to a spare sixteen, the first words of our present Bill of Rights: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  This was the first time in human history for such freedom to be written into a nations constitution.

Unfortunately, it is a freedom that is in jeopardy today.  Voices now are being raised - and, regrettably, many of them are Baptist voices - demanding that government get back into the religion business.

Take, for an example, the frequently heard complaint that it was wrong for the government ever to have ruled against school prayer.   Actually, what the government did was to remove socially obligatory, or mandatory prayers from the schools.  As such, the courts action was a wonderful plus for true religion, for it recognized that prayer is a religious act of faith entered into willingly by sincere seekers of God; and that it demeans prayer to treat it as an expected religious ritual of cultural unity.  Prayer is different, prayer is a theological, religious matter occupying a special zone in which government has no place.  And lovers of freedom need to raise the question, Do we really want the government telling any of us when and where and how to pray?  

Americans are justifiably concerned toady about our values, a concern some politicians regrettably feed upon, playing the religious card as skillfully as their predecessors played the race card.  In our post 9-11 anxiety Americans understandably want cohesion and moral/religious unity, and some seem to want it so fervently that theyd like everyone quite literally to sing out of the same hymnbook.  It was a desire our founding fathers also felt, but wisely rejected.   The principal figure on that occasion was Patrick Henry, of Give me liberty or give me death fame.  Five years before the Bill of Rights was passed Patrick Henry tried to get the Commonwealth of Virginia to enact a bill that stipulated that the Christian religion shall in all times coming be deemed and held to be the established religion of this Commonwealth.  Many were pleased with his bill.  (Since Virginia by that time had so many pesky Baptists - and others - that they couldnt make the Anglican Church the official church, at least they could declare that Virginia would forever be a Christian state.)  But Patrick Henrys bill never came up for a final vote.  Why?  Because, among other things, Virginians realized that the state would [then] have the obligation to examine the beliefs of every church to determine which churches were really Christian   (p. 23).  Five years later the Constitutional Convention chose to reject any form of marriage between government and religious faith.  The souls of Americans, they said, would forever be free: free to believe or disbelieve whatever they wished religiously, free to support or to criticize - in Gods name - any action of the government, free to obey God and not man!

The 146th Psalm, which we read earlier in this hour, is actually a political song.  It contrasts the impressive stature of princes and potentates who have power for only a season - and in whom it is folly to place much trust - it contrasts these governmental powers with the everlasting God whose program of justice and mercy endures forever.  The Psalm says we ought not confuse the two, nor even place them on a par.  They are different.

On this Fourth of July I am proud to be an American.  Even when I am profoundly displeased, embarrassed or enraged by actions or policies of my nation, I am proud to be an American.  But I am prouder to be a Christian - I hope - and grateful to be so in a nation that has always recognized the eternal and essential difference between God and government.  I pray that we always will.

Eternal God, we come now to the table of our Lord Christ.  It is not a national table, not an American table, but the table of Him who lived and died and reigns in glory for all people of all nations.  We come to a table set for sinners, a table prepared for those who know they need help.  We thank you for the freedom to come, for the provisions made for us before the foundations of the world, for your promises to meet us here and lift us above our narrow partisanships.  Here we would be made one with the crucified Jesus in whom there was no hidden agenda, no ego-needs, no political power, no power save love.  May we be freed to love as he loved, and to live as he lived.  Amen.

The quote, and other borrowings for this sermon come from Edwin S. Gaustads Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: A History of Church and State in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999,2003).

 

 

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