At first I balked when Jim Segaar asked me to write a blog post about Religious Liberty for the “Practicing our Faith” series. I believe religious liberty is the least understood, most controversial, and most misinterpreted of our Baptist liberties. And that is exactly the reason I decided to accept the challenge. Besides, it’s personal.
Religious liberty is in my blood. For as long as I can remember, my Southern Baptist pastor father was an outspoken proponent of the Separation of Church and State. He frequently voiced his concern over what he believed was the concurrent Fundamentalist take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the two primary American political parties which threatened the very essence of religious liberty in America. To this day, as a person of faith and a fortunate same-sex marriage partner, I am highly aware of the religious liberty puzzle. Increasingly individuals and institutions claim a right to discriminate against LGBT people based on religious objections. That hits home.
So what exactly is meant by Religious Liberty and its corollary, the Separation of Church and State? And why are they so important? Early Baptists in England and America experienced persecution “inflicted by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.” Even today the boundaries between government and religion are continuously tested. Former SFBC member, Charles Cates, provided an apt description. Charles is a member of the Religious Liberty Council of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) in Washington D.C., which our church supports through our denomination, the American Baptist Churches U.S.A.. Charles said, “… as Baptists, a commitment to religious liberty is part of who we are. Religious liberty is a gift from God, and a threat to anyone's religious liberty is a threat to everyone's religious liberty. Religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced by government nor inhibited by it.” The BJC adds, “God has made us all free…to make up our own minds about our spiritual destiny.”
Many in this country falsely believe that religious liberty should only apply to a narrowly defined group of Christians. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Muslim and Sikh communities in the United States have faced a disturbing wave of bigotry and outright hostility. From religiously motivated discrimination and attacks on existing and proposed religious centers to misguided congressional hearings, minorities are being unfairly targeted simply for exercising their basic constitutional right to religious liberty.” The truth is that religious liberty protections apply to people of all faiths, including Satanist, Wicca and other non-mainstream religions.
While the principles of Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State may seem very straight forward, practicing them is far from simple. Both systemic and individual actions are required. The Baptist Joint Committee works diligently to advocate for our religious liberty by providing education, influencing legislation, and participation in church-state litigation. They assist with interpretation of key issues including: the religion clauses of the U.S. constitution, free exercise of religion, church electioneering, religious displays, public prayer, public schools, and political discourse. Each of us can be an advocate for religious liberty. The BLC website (www.bjconline.org) provides learning resources for taking action.
The Separation of Church and State does not require a segregation of religion from public life. And it does not excuse people of faith from the call to do justice, which includes influencing public policy. Our church’s mission statement articulates our aspiration to “love and care for our neighbors” and to “know no circles of exclusion.“ We must also be prepared to wrestle with the fact that sincerely held religious opinions often vary widely on what exactly constitutes justice. We claim to have “no loyalties above those which we owe to God.” So do some of the people with whom we most vehemently disagree. According to the prophet, Micah, we are also required to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Perhaps we would do well to stand firmly on the sound principle of religious liberty for all while humbly showing kindness to those with whom we may disagree. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a country that protects our religious liberty. And with each individual act of support we fan the flame of hope for a better world.
(Quotations are from the Baptist Joint Committee website unless otherwise attributed.)