I trace my spiritual lineage back to a radical Baptist in England named Thomas Helwys who believed that God, and not the King, was Lord of conscience. In 1612 Roman Catholics were the embattled target of the Crown and Thomas Helwys, the Baptist, came to their defense with the first tract in English demanding full religious liberty. Here's what he said:
"Our Lord the King has no more power over their [Catholic] consciences than ours, and that is none at all. For men's religion is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer it; neither may the King be judge betwixt God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatever. It appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."
The king was the good King James I - yes, that King James, as in the King James Bible. Challenges to his authority did not cause his head to rest easily on his pillow, so James had Thomas Helwys thrown into prison, where he died.
Thomas Helwys was not the first or last dissenter to pay the supreme price for conscience. While we are not called upon in America today to make a similar sacrifice, we are in need of his generous vision of religious freedom. We are heading into a new religious landscape. For most of our history our religious discourse was dominated by white male Protestants of a culturally conservative European heritage, people like me. Dissenting voices of America, alternative visions of faith, race, and gender, rarely reached the mainstream. It's different now. Immigration has added more than 30 million people to our population since the late 1960s. The American gene pool is mutating into one in which people like me will be a minority within half a century.