Thursday, February 09, 2012

In Defense of Religious Liberty

As Americans we tend to take our religious liberty for granted.  Many of us grew up hearing stories about how in 1620 the pilgrims fled Plymouth, England for the wilderness in what would eventually be called Massachusetts, expressly for the freedom to worship God as they saw fit.  Today many mistakenly believe that freedom of religion was consistently maintained and universally available during the colonial period.  Such was not the case.  In some colonies dissenting Christians were routinely arrested, imprisoned and fined.  Their property was seized.  Their church buildings were burned.  Some were even physically tortured.  And the worst villain—the most consistent perpetrator of religious persecution among the English colonies—was none other than the Colony of Virginia.  This persecution reached its zenith in the 1760s and 70s in the years immediately prior to the revolution.  The primary target of Virginia’s religious persecution was none other than the Baptists.

Baptist historian, Robert A. Baker, related that the bitter experience of religious persecution by order of representatives of the Crown, in close concert with the Church of England, “led Baptists almost to a man to believe that the only possibility of securing religious liberty was bound up with the achievement of political liberty.”  Consequently, Baptists in Virginia were actively involved in both political agitation and in taking up arms against the king.  Baker adds, “England recognized this, and Baptist churches were regularly burned by their troops during the war as ‘nests of rebellion.’”

Therefore it should come as no surprise that when freedom from British rule was finally achieved, Virginia Baptists were determined that the new federal government would enshrine religious freedom in its new constitution.  On September 17, 1787 the Constitutional Convention adopted the new constitution and sent it to the thirteen states for ratification.  Soon thereafter Virginia Baptists gathered to examine the proposed constitution.  They “unanimously agreed that it did not make proper provision for religious liberty…”  So Rev. John Leland, a popular Baptist pastor in Orange County, fought against ratification by announcing his candidacy as a delegate to the Virginia Convention that would vote on the document.  His opponent was none other than James Madison, who favored ratification.  The two men met privately.  Leland helped Madison understand the Baptists’ concerns.  After securing Madison’s pledge to address these issues forthwith, Leland withdrew from the race in support of Madison, who was then elected.  The constitution was ratified.  Afterwards Baptists supported the election of James Madison to the new congress.  Then in June, 1789, Madison introduced ten amendments to the new constitution, the first of which guaranteed freedom of religion.

We Virginia Baptists can take particular pride in our historic role in establishing and preserving religious liberty in the United States.  But liberty once won must continually be defended.  Today religious liberty in the United States is under new attack.  Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the inclusion of a provision of the new healthcare law requiring church owned and operated schools and hospitals to provide free birth control—including the so-called “morning after pill” which at times works by inducing the abortion of the newly fertilized egg—is a direct assault on religious freedom of conscience.

Be clear regarding what is at stake here.  The issue is not birth control or abortion.  It has nothing to do with your political party affiliation.  Whatever your views about these issues and regardless of who you plan to vote for in November, if you value religious freedom then you ought to actively oppose this unwarranted intrusion of federal power into the ability of religious organizations to establish policies and conduct their affairs as they see fit.  It is not enough to be free to worship in private without constraint.  Freedom of religion is far broader than simple freedom of worship.  Freedom of religion means freedom to exercise your faith in the public square and to do so without government interference.  Our ancestors paid a dear price for that freedom.  Honor those past generations, and protect the rights of future generations, by working to overturn this unconstitutional intrusion by government into the affairs of the church.

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