When the English Protestant theologian Roger Williams protested against a movement to re-establish a state church in 1635, he was banned from the New England Colonies. Seeking safe haven Williams fled to what is now Providence, RI, and established the first Baptist church in America.
Clearly, the desire for religious freedom is in our Baptist DNA, but too often even Baptists have struggled to understand this complex, foundational principle. In 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson refused to designate a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, it was the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association which wrote a letter of concern. In response, Jefferson coined the immemorial phrase “wall of separation”:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, … I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Today, sadly, many Baptists in the U.S. are once again actively petitioning their government to breach that important wall, seeking sanctioned governmental assistance for religiously motivated convictions. But what actually are these convictions?
The “religious freedoms” our government is being asked to provide are not the fundamental protections needed to practice religion. The US remains the most religiously diverse nation in the history of humankind. Secularists should celebrate this because it means we have gotten something right when it comes to promoting freedom, and Baptists should celebrate because diversity is sure sign of the “liberty of conscience” Roger Williams risked his life promoting.
However, what the spate of recently passed state laws actual promote is not “religious freedom,” but a much more narrowly defined “religious opinion” based on a particular biblical interpretation of some Christians. Honesty will require us to admit that these laws do not protect the religious freedom of all Americans, nor of all Christians – they don’t even protect the freedoms of all Baptists.
What if the majority population in Indiana had voted to ensconce into law the convictions of a liberal Christianity, such as mine? Or, what if the majority in a state supports Sharia Law? Whose religious “freedom” are we going to support? The majority view? The loudest voices? The strongest, most powerful, most affluent?
I believe our founding fathers hoped for something more powerful than this, namely, a constitution that would allow each of us to express our religious (or non-religious) convictions equally.
What would be wrong with the conservative Christian florist explaining to the gay couple that, given her Christian conviction about marriage, the couple would likely find better service from someone who could genuinely share their excitement for the day? She could express her religious conviction with compassion and her Christian voice might actually find a more open reception.
North Carolina doesn’t need any more “religious freedom” laws, but we could certainly use more graciously religious people. Instead of laws, we need more people of faith, free enough from prejudice and arrogance and condescension, to be able to express convictions with compassion – not just with passion.