The Common Good

On Scripture: Religious Liberty for the Rest of Us

The Puritans sailed to these shores 400 years ago seeking freedom of religion, but freedom of their religion only. Earlier this year, a group of North Carolina lawmakers, apparently channeling the Puritans, tried to establish Christianity as the state religion.

Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com
Protesters in Florida supporting prayer in public schools, Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com

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Their action was prompted by a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU noted that some county commissions and other governmental boards around the state opened meetings with prayer. While these various boards had policies that allowed for a multiplicity of religious voices, most prayers were offered in the name of Jesus Christ.

Eleven legislators, all white male Christians, backed a bill to codify Christianity in state law, saying the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not trump the state’s rights. The effort died a quick and merciful death.

These misguided politicians forgot a simple truth – even if a state could mandate a public religion, that wouldn’t change what is in people’s hearts. As Roger Williams wrote in June 1670, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” Williams, who was expelled by the Puritans and founded a religious colony in Rhode Island, knew firsthand the importance of religious freedom.

In June 1215, four centuries before the Puritans sailed to the New World, feudal barons forced England’s King John to accept that his powers were not absolute. This was the first time such a declaration had been accepted by a monarch. The document they presented to John, the Magna Carta, asserted that the king’s sovereignty was limited to “the law of the land,” a phrase used in the 1297 version of the charter.

The Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” later served as a model for the formation of government in the American colonies, especially the Bill of Rights. Although altered and watered down in subsequent revisions, the Magna Carta remains a revered historical landmark of personal freedom.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, among other sources, refers to Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the “Magna Carta of Christian liberty.” In this epistle, written about 53 C.E., Paul turns this concept of the “law of the land” on its head. “Galatians shows that the believer is no longer under the law but is saved by faith alone,” writes Henrietta C. Mearsin her book, What the Bible is All AboutThe first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – laid out the laws of Moses from which Israel took its rules and rituals. Gentiles in Galatia were told they must be circumcised and follow other aspects of Jewish law.

Paul wrote his powerful letter to the Galatians dismissing the notion that earthly law, good works, and religious ritual are the necessary components for salvation. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:15-16 NRSV).

Paul asserts his authority as an apostle of Christ, albeit one who never met Jesus face to face, but indirectly through his divine conversion experience. “Paul insists on the fact that he received the Gospel directly by a revelation from Christ,” notes Oscar Cullmann. After his transformation from persecutor of Christians to devout adherent, Paul considered the Torah to be a compilation of legalisms.

Essentially, Paul elevated Christianity from its status as just another Jewish sect to a distinct faith. He was imprisoned and eventually beheaded for his evangelism. “More than any other single figure, Christianity owes its success and growth to the apostle Paul,” writes Michael Grant. “By extending Christianity to the Gentiles, it was he who had made it into a world religion.”

The Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England in the 17th Century, and were expelled. (Martin Luther, who wrote a commentary on Galatians, had similar issues with the Catholic Church in the previous century.) Ironically, the Puritans themselves did not tolerate others who disagreed with their theology, including Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and all Quakers. The New England of these settlers was a legalistic theocracy, pure and simple.

People who seek freedom of worship should embrace separation of church and state, a phrase that comes from a letter written in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, Conn., Baptists, a religious minority concerned about the lack of explicit protection of religious liberty. Jefferson’s response was one of reassurance:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20 NRSV).

Christians who want to worship freely should do so without feeling threatened by those who believe in something else, or who believe in nothing at all.

That’s true Christian liberty.

Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina. He teaches journalism, Religion & Media, and other courses. He is a former religion correspondent for The Charlotte Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

Image: Protesters in Florida supporting prayer in public schools, Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com

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