First Freedoms First

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

– Rev. John Leland A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.

A local church I have been affiliated with over the years has a tradition on the Sunday closest to July 4 of worshipping in the style of the 18th century American colonies, using the Anglican prayer book of 1662. (When the liturgy calls for prayers for “our beloved sovereign, King George,” people stamp their feet to drown out the name, as was done in the “good old days.”)

As the resident Baptist around there, I threatened for years to join their commemoration by sitting outside in the stocks, which is where I would have been in those days as a member of an unauthorized and dissident religious group. In the Virginia Colony, those who did not attend the Anglican church could be fined, and those who dared to preach without a license were subject to arrest, imprisonment, and beatings.

I’m proud that it was Baptists who were at the forefront of the struggle for religious freedom in our country. John Leland, the author of the bold statement above, was pastor of a Baptist church that James Madison attended, and is credited with convincing Madison that religious liberty needed to be secured in the constitution of the United States. I am puzzled, saddened, and at times angry that so many Baptists today have forgotten how costly that struggle was and how important that freedom remains.

Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,

or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Those simple words lay out the shape of our public arena; we are not a “Christian” country; neither are we a secular country. We cherish our religious traditions and our faith, and we recognize the right of others to live out there religious convictions (or choice not to believe) without coercion, overt or covert.

I believe it is no accident that the US is considered one of the most religious countries in the world. We are free to choose, and thus when we choose we are passionate, devoted, and active in our religious lives. Our religious diversity is a continuing challenge, as we make room for others in our communities, our marketplaces, and our public arenas. None of us owns the civic commons; all of us are charged with the responsibility of securing freedom of worship not only for ourselves, but for all of those in our communities.


Blog Against Theocracy. From July 1-4, 2007, Bloggers of all stripes are participating in a “blogswarm”- a loosely-coordinated volunteer effort to blog on a common topic- separation of church and state. I know I won’t agree with everyone on what religious freedom ought to mean, but I agree that it is a central affirmation that helps to shape our culture and liberty in the US. Take a moment to be thankful for the freedom we do enjoy, and perhaps to find out what others are saying:

This entry was posted in Local, National, Religious Freedom, Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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