Thursday, July 9, 2015

Celebrating our religious freedom
by David R. Currie

(EDITOR'S NOTE: David R. Currie served as executive director of Texas Baptists Committed from 1987-2009.)

The wisdom of our Founding Fathers
The U.S. Constitution mentions religion only once, in Article VI, paragraph 3:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
That is a pretty straightforward statement by our Founding Fathers. They clearly did not intend for religious faith, in any form or fashion, to be required for serving in elected office. They did not form America as a Christian nation. Were they influenced by Christian values? I’m sure they were, but they clearly did not want to establish an official state-sponsored religion in America.

To further clarify this, they included, in the 1st Amendment, two religious liberty clauses – known as the establishment clause and the free exercise clause – consisting of sixteen words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In my opinion, these are the most important words ever written and adopted by a government in the history of the world. For me, these words are what make America – America.

If every government would adopt these words and faithfully practice them, wars would virtually cease, as most wars result from the attempt by one religious group to impose its faith on others.

Our Founding Fathers knew this and founded America as a secular nation, something for which all Christians should thank God. As Thomas Jefferson said, ”History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

Being a secular nation gives Christians the freedom to exercise our faith without government support or interference, as long as we do not seek to impose our faith on others. This freedom resulted in a country in which the Christian faith was robust and growing until some religious leaders in the second half of the 20th century banded together in an attempt to gain government support for the practice of their brand of Christianity. Many Christians swallowed whole the myth that Christian values could be legislated into people’s lives without the power of the Holy Spirit. This was and is foolish thinking.

Current events & the 1st Amendment
So let’s examine two current news items in light of the words of the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling on Ten Commandments monument at State Capitol
Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a monument promoting the Ten Commandments must be removed from the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol building. This was great news to me as a Christian. Why? Because religious symbols and words on public property violate the spirit of the 1st Amendment prohibition against the state establishment of religion. Thankfully, the Oklahoma Constitution has a similar prohibition on which the state Supreme Court relied for its ruling, denying the use of public money or property – either directly or indirectly – for the “benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.”

Public buildings are paid for by taxpayers of all faiths and no faiths. To promote any religious teaching on public property is to violate the U.S. Constitution.

If you walk into my office today, you will be greeted by a plaque with The Lord’s Prayer on it. I am free to display that plaque on my private property; to deny me that right would violate my freedom to exercise my religion. I am a private citizen. I can put whatever I want on my private property, as can any person of any faith. That is freedom. If I want to display a Ten Commandments monument in front of my building, I can do so. It’s my private property.

But government property is a different matter. People of all faiths – and people of no faith – must be treated equally, according to the Constitution. I wish every government followed our great American example.

U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage
Now how does religious freedom figure in the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Constitution requires that persons of the same sex be given the same right to marry as persons of opposite sex?

I am a Baptist minister, not an official of the government; therefore, I can decide whose marriages I will perform, and the Constitution protects my right to make that decision.

In my opinion, the Supreme Court decision, with which I disagree theologically, was the right decision constitutionally. People have the right to live differently than I do, with values different than mine, as long as they do not hurt others. That is what freedom means.

Thus, government officials should be required to follow the Constitution and perform these marriages if asked. County clerks should be required to issue a marriage license to any couple – same sex or opposite sex – of legal age. It is the law. If you cannot – in good conscience – follow the law, then resign; your personal religious freedom does not give you the right to discriminate as a public official.

The same thing applies to me as a businessperson. I cannot refuse to sell someone a house on the basis of his or her sexual orientation any more than I can refuse to sell someone a house on the basis of the color of his or her skin. If I owned a bakery, for example, I should not be allowed to hide behind the 1st Amendment for the purpose of discriminating, no matter how deeply I believe something is right or wrong.

Sin in our country is nothing new
Finally, I just have to get off my chest how offended I am as a Christian at ministers today who are shouting at the top of their lungs that “America is turning its back on God and we are going to be punished.” This is nonsense, because we have always struggled to live up to our faith and had “our backs turned on God.” For over 80 years, we as a country allowed persons to own other persons and treat them like property. My ancestors, three of whom fought for the Confederacy, probably held these convictions as “good” Baptist laymen. I do not know whether they owned slaves, but I do know that many did and picked who of their “property” to breed in the same way that I pick which bull to mate with which cows on my ranch. We and all nations have always been made up of sinful people, and still are.

God has never been pleased with all of the actions of any country and never will be. We are all sinners and incapable of pleasing God perfectly, despite our best efforts, but we must strive to overcome our natures and treat all persons with love and grace, for that is the heart of the Gospel.

Freedom worth celebrating
What we truly can celebrate every July 4 is the religious freedom we have as Americans that has kept us from killing each other over religion for nearly 250 years. That is a truly remarkable thing in the world today.

What we can celebrate is the freedom to proclaim our faith and be protected in so doing as long as we do not try to enforce our beliefs on others by power of government.

What we can celebrate is that this freedom has led to many individuals truly having a personal relationship with a living God, people who are striving to make our world and country a truly more loving and caring community.

What we can celebrate is the wisdom of our Founding Fathers in separating government from religion so that we might all be free to believe as we so choose.

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