Religious Liberty: An Emotional Issue Still Not Settled

WHEN BAPTISTS SET FORTH a call for religious liberty, they were seeking freedom to hold their religious beliefs as an alternative to the doctrines of the established church. But there was a risk involved. Total freedom of religion could become freedom from religion. For many religious liberty really means the opportunity to choose what form of religion one wants, assuming that biblical Christianity is correct and will in the Providence of God always predominate. It must be asked whether any Christian, most of all the Baptists, could by choice want to live in a society where “secular humanism” is the prevailing world view. A variety of statements by Baptists on religious liberty both historical and contemporary consider the subject area.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams fled Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island colony in pursuit of religious liberty.


It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries: and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.

God requires not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

The permission of other consciences and worships than a state professeth only can, according to God, procure a firm and lasting peace …

Source: (1644) The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution

Thomas Helwys

Thomas Helwys wrote the first defense of religious liberty in the English language in 1612.

Early Baptist leader Thomas Helwys made the first plea in the English language for religious liberty in his book A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity (1612). Shown below is his handwritten preface to King James from this work.

W.A. Criswell

W. A. Criswell is pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas.

Religious liberty consists of the civil magistrate’s comprehending and acknowledging that it has no rightful authority over a man’s soul. A proper understanding of religious liberty requires the civil authority to understand that a man’s religious beliefs are beyond the purview of the state. Consequently, the state authority does not merely tolerate religious beliefs and activity, nor can it grant the right of religious freedom. All that the state can do legitimately is to acknowledge man’s inherent God-given right to worship God in his own way, as well as the right not to worship at all.

One of the great Baptist gifts to the Reformation Heritage is a full awareness that for individual believer priests (I Pet. 2:5,9) to “work out” their “own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) they must be unhindered by governmental interference. Early in the seventeenth century the great English Baptist, Thomas Helwys, penned the first published plea in the English language for religious liberty in his A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity when he declared in 1612 that the King of England was a mere man and had no authority over men’s souls “for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves.”

In New England, Roger Williams took up the plea for religious liberty which led to the establishment of a colony, Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island), where men enjoyed complete religious liberty. The Baptist concept of religious liberty was buttressed and fortified by a deep-seated belief in the New Testament, with its lack of church-state entanglement, rather than the Old Testament, as the manual for faith and practice in the New Covenant of Christ and His Church.

The commitment to religious liberty and the consequent belief in the separation of church and state need not, however, imply that religious views should not inform political issues. Religious liberty requires an absolute separation of the institutions of the church and the state. However, the biblical dictums concerning the Christian’s obligation to support civil magistry (Lk. 20:25: Rom. 13:1–7) guarantee the absolute inseparability of religious values and political issues. The Christian not only has the right, but also the duty to bring his or her religious convictions to bear upon the political issues of the day. Religious liberty means freedom for religion, not freedom from exposure to religious activities. To argue that a person’s views are disqualified from the political and social arena because they are based on religious convictions is not state neutrality, but government censorship.

Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia.

Mixing religion and politics can mean many things. It could mean that one advocates a theocratic state. I certainly do not. Such a merger of religion and politics is as far removed from my position as its opposite, namely, a political system like communism which represses religious thought and expression.

I firmly believe it is a religious duty to be a good citizen. It is one’s duty as a good citizen to participate in politics, but I can be true neither to my country nor to my God if I separate my religious convictions from my political views. If l am to be whole, one with myself and with God, I must infuse my life as a political being with beliefs I learned from the Divine Being. This is not radical, fundamentalist Christian theory. It is the basic belief which first drove the Pilgrims to our shores and later inspired the Founding Fathers to proclaim our independence from Britain “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” It is the notion which infused the antislavery movement of the 19th century, and in which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., took his message of racial harmony.

Why should we not permit moral values to influence our thinking about important contemporary issues? To say that spiritual values or morality are at the heart of our society is not to establish a state religion. Far from it. It is only to say with the Constitution that we guarantee the fundamental right of free exercise for all religions throughout our society…

My position—and I believe it is the position of the majority of Americans today, just as it has been for 200 years—is that it is not only legitimate to advocate basic religious values in the political arena, but it is absolutely essential for the health of our republic that believers participate in the political debate of our days.

Edwin Gaustad

Edwin Gaustad is Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside.

Some recent discussion has suggested that the founding fathers thought they were guaranteeing only a freedom for religion, not a freedom from religion. This is surely true of neither Madison nor Jefferson, nor of Baptists who followed in their train. John Leland, an eighteenth-century Baptist itinerant in Virginia, argued that whether a man believed in one god, twenty gods, or no god was not the concern of the state. Religion is not in any direct way the concern of the state, he further declared. The law should not favor ministers, nor should it penalize them. “The law should be silent about them: protect them as citizens, not as sacred officers, for the civil law knows no sacred officers.”

In the inevitable interaction between the civil and the ecclesiastical estates, what is a legitimate entanglement and what is an excessive or totally inappropriate entanglement? What are the boundaries that must not be overstepped, whether on theological or moral or Constitutional grounds? Supreme Court justices over the years, and especially in the last four decades, have not found easy answers to those questions. Nor have the leaders of virtually all denominations in America found the lines clear and the answers easy. The application of principle is more difficult than the assertion of it.

On theological grounds, the state has no right to be the armed avenger against “false” religion nor the armed defender of “true” religion. On Constitutional grounds, the state has no right to be either religion’s foe or religion’s patron. On theological and moral grounds, the churches have no right to coerce the consciences of others: on theological and moral and constitutional grounds, the churches have every right to organize, propagandize, persuade, influence, lobby and cajole. In between such broad declarations of principle, there is room for much disagreement and discord and litigation and confusion and (in the words of Chief Justice Burger) “play in the joints.”

Gerhard Claas

Gerhard Claas is General Secretary of The Baptist World Alliance.

…Almost every country in Europe guarantees religious liberty in its constitution. There are many countries where freedom of religion is limited to meetings within the walls of registered churches and mosques. Wherever religion is considered to be a private matter, no public meetings or conferences of religious groups are permitted and any kind of propaganda is prohibited.

The so-called Evangelical Free Churches as well as the government of the socialist countries in Eastern Europe always called for total separation of church and state. However, in Europe today, we still have three major or mainline churches—the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Orthodox Church. All the other Christians belong to minority churches: they suffer minority complexes, they very often are overlooked or maybe even treated as second class people.

I am speaking as a member of an Evangelical Free Church, that is, the Baptist Church. We are strongly working for a full separation of church and state. We think that the church should never be involved in political affairs. And the same way, the state should never interfere in church activities.

Having said this, I must confess however, that to my understanding there never can be an absolute freedom. Let us turn back to the biblical text and we will discover that there are certain limitations of freedom…

A limitation of freedom is given by the fact of fellowship because the individual is created for community. No one lives alone from the fact that he has a father or a mother. Each comes from the communion from father and mother and is born into the family. Each individual person needs community and fellowship in order to learn to grow and to live. This is already clear when one observes a small child. The child cannot live without any person’s help. Every person is dependent upon another person. Whoever says “person” says at the same time “community”.

Limitations are set by the community. The life of the community is regulated by law and order which I have to accept. Even more, the individual person has not only to integrate into the community, but also has to be a servant of the community he is called “to serve.”

What are we really looking for? Do we want freedom for ourselves? Do we just want to be absolutely independent? Even free of any kind of responsibility? Are we looking for religious liberty because we and our church just want to make our own way? Or do we really seek the welfare of the people? Do we want to help the oppressed—those who suffer oppression and limited possibilities?

Our call for freedom including religious liberty always must have a double goal.

1. The freedom of the individual—so that he can live according to his own conscience and to the glory of God.

2. The freedom of society—so that we can build for the future and serve the people for the welfare of the city.

Stan Hastey

Stan Hastey is Associate Executive Director, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Religious liberty is the theological principle, rooted in Holy Scripture, that every person is made in the image of God and is endowed with a free conscience to make spiritual and moral choices. Because it is a gift of God, religious liberty belongs universally to all God’s children as an elementary human right.

In the United States, the political corollary of religious liberty is the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, a principle adopted by the nation’s founders to insure that neither government nor religion should gain dominance over the other.

Although Baptists cannot claim all the credit for the triumph of religious liberty and separation of church and state in the United States, they played a key role throughout the nearly two-century struggle to enshrine these principles in the nation’s basic documents of freedom.

As Anson Phelps Stokes, perhaps the most renowned church-state historian of this century wrote, “No denomination has its roots more firmly planted in the soil of religious freedom and Church-State separation than the Baptists.” George W. Truett, in an historic address on the subject delivered in 1920 from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, called religious liberty “the supreme contribution” of America to the rest of the world, and declared that “historic justice compels me to say that it was preeminently a Baptist contribution.”

Because religious liberty is the chief contribution Baptists have made to the social teaching of the church and because its continuity is essential to proper church-state relations, each generation of Baptists is obligated to contend for it and to extend it to the next generation.

The chief impediment to religious liberty in our generation is the renewed effort to make of the United States a theocracy rather than the constitutional democracy the founders set in place. With increasing frequency the founders’ church-state views have come under attack, particularly Thomas Jefferson’s conception of separation of church and state. The views of Jefferson and James Madison, father of the Constitution, are now labeled by some of the leaders of the so-called Religious Right as abberations and the notion is advanced that the founders actually sought to establish a kind of holy commonwealth in which, while government would not dominate the church, the church could well dominate the state.

Closely connected to this historical revisionism is the view that America occupies a special role in God’s plan for the ages, that the United States is the successor to the covenant people Israel, that she is God’s own possession among the nations of the world. Although this kind of nationalistic messianism is not new to the contemporary Religious Right, it remains as morally bankrupt today as ever, amounting really to a form of national idolatry. CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #6 in 1985]

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