Saturday, July 01, 2006

Baptists and Religious Freedom: The Courage to Confront the Establishment

Tuesday, we celebrate the birth of our nation. The United States is a nation that stands for freedom. One of our most basic freedoms that we cherish is the freedom of religion. Within the first sentence of the first amendment to the Constitution, we find the words that spell out the doctrine of the separation of church and state. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For more than two centuries Americans have enjoyed the fact that they can exercise their faith any way they please and can even have no faith at all, all without any coercion from the government. That, in my opinion, is one of our most basic of freedoms and it has served us well. It certainly explains why religion thrives so well in America.
There is a very long tradition of Baptist attention to religious liberty and separation of church and state. In his book, The Baptist Identity, Walter Shurden indicates that frequently, Baptists have been a “Romans 13 people,” recognizing that God ordains the government and they have been supportive. Other times, Baptists have been a “Revelation 13 people,” living under political circumstances where they consider the government to be the “Beast” and having to “oppose the state with their very lives.” But, most of the time, Baptists have been a “Matthew 22 people,” able to “render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is God’s.”[1]
One of my favorite Baptists was Thomas Helwys, a member of that very first congregation of Baptists established in Amsterdam by John Smyth. Eventually, Helwys took part of the group back to England and helped establish the first Baptist church on English soil. The little band of Baptists ran into great difficulty in England, though. King James was not accommodating to dissent from the Church of England. Baptists were not free to promote their faith. And, so Helwys wrote a wonderful little book called The Mistery of Iniquity. Listen carefully to these clear, concise, and prophetic words Helwys used to address the king:
We still pray our lord the King that we may be free from suspect, for having any
thoughts of provoking evil against them of the Romish religion in regard to
their profession, if they be true and faithful subjects to the King, for we do
freely profess that our lord the King hath no more power over their consciences
than ours, and that it is none at all; for our lord the King is but an earthly
King, and if the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all h
human laws made by the King, our lord the King can require no more. For
men’s religion is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it,
neither may the King be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics,
Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish
them in the least measure.[2]
Two important things should be noticed here. First, Helwys wrote this document and sent a personal copy to King James. He was immediately arrested and spent the rest of his life in Newgate Prison. Second, notice that Helwys was arguing not only for Baptist freedom, but also freedom of religion for Roman Catholics, Muslims, atheists, and Jews, a concept almost considered blasphemous in their day! But, we need to understand that it is the Baptist way!
My great fear today is that religion in America is so free, that we have been lulled to sleep and are not able to recognize threats to religious liberty that are all around us today. Even many Baptists are unaware of the danger of some of the things they say and advocate. There is a philosophy going around today in Religious Right circles that basically argues that the founding fathers were all Christians (in the way that we define Christian) and that the philosophical underpinning of the founding of our nation is Biblical Christianity. That is almost totally false. It cannot be denied that the Founding Fathers were “Christian” to some degree or another. But, coming from 18th Century Enlightenment ideals, they conceived of a nation and a government that would be totally “secular” and “neutral” when it came to matters of religion. But, many fail to recognize this today.
In 1984, in an interview with Bill Moyers that was televised nationally, W. A. Criswell, longtime pastor of FBC Dallas made a historical blunder of epic proportions. He made the statement that the notion of the separation of church and state is “the figment of some infidel’s imagination.” In that one statement, W. A. Criswell was casting off centuries of Baptist witness, including that of his own predecessor George W. Truett, as being full of “infidels.” Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!!!
The passage that we read a few moments ago from Amos is a story about one prophet and his refusal to go along with the establishment. It was the 8th century B.C.E. The nation of Israel had been divided between the northern kingdom, which retained the name “Israel” and the southern kingdom which was called “Judah.” Amos was a farmer, a layman, from the South who was called by God to go to the North and prophesy. Following his conscience, he did just that. And, his prophecy was pointed, harsh at times, and for the most part rejected. The northern kingdom was doing well financially and politically. The shrine at Bethel where Amaziah served as priest had good attendance. And here came this “doom and gloom” prophet, an outsider, claiming that God’s judgment was coming upon Israel for its mistreatment of the poor and its general disobedience. This was a message they did not want to hear.
This encounter between Amos and Amaziah represents the conflict between priestly religion and prophetic religion.[3] I want to suggest to you today that we do not truly have freedom of religion until there is the freedom for the “prophets” to challenge the “priests.” And, I would contend that this dynamic is at the heart of the Baptist tradition when it comes to matters of the state and our faith. Can this story teach us anything today about the freedom of religion we enjoy in our nation? Indeed I believe it can.
I. Priestly Religion: Comfort But No Freedom
In this passage of scripture we see an encounter between Amos and Amaziah. Amaziah was on the king’s payroll. He represented state religion, the establishment, the majority opinion. He was a priest at Bethel, the religious center of the Northern Kingdom. Amaziah seems to have had some type of personal acquaintance with King Jeroboam II by the fact that he reported to the king what Amos was prophesying and he seemed to speak for the king in forbidding Amos to prophesy any further. He was paid to keep the king happy. He dared not cross the king! Furthermore, one could say that a part of his job was to sponsor the state religion. He exemplifies “establishment” religion. He was a prototype of John Calvin of Geneva, John Cotton of Massachusetts Bay and Henry VIII. Amos spoke his conscience and dared speak against the establishment.
The kind of priestly religion as exemplified by Amaziah is always accountable to someone other than God. It is never truly free. It is either controlled by a governmental power, some type of social structure, or its own spokesperson. Roy Honeycutt says, “Whenever religion is institutionalized there is always a “Jeroboam” rather than God to whom it is responsible.”[4]
Priestly religion always demands that things stay as they are and is chaffed by criticism. In fact, it frequently does not allow for criticism at all. When Amaziah encountered Amos he reported to the king that Amos was “conspiring” against Israel. Then, he told Amos in verse 12, “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” In other words, go back home and do you prophesying but leave us alone!
On July 16, 1651 John Clarke, pastor of the Newport Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, along with Obadiah Holmes and John Randall, made a pastoral visit to the home of a man named William Witter in Lynn, Mass. Witter was elderly and near death and was probably a member of the Newport church. John Clarke apparently led a worship service and preached at the home. The established religion in Mass. was Puritanism and the Puritans forbid Baptist preaching. Clarke, Randall, and Holmes were arrested for illegal preaching. They were tried and sentenced to be fined or publicly whipped.
Clarke’s fine was paid by an anonymous donor. Randall paid his own fine. A donor offered to pay Holmes’ fine but he refused and insisted on taking the whipping. And so, after several weeks in jail, on September 5, 1651 Obadiah Holmes’ hands were tied to the post in Boston Commons. He was stripped to the waist and he received thirty lashes across his back. It was reported that throughout the whipping Holmes continued preaching to the crowd as a witness. He was so brutally injured that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks and for much of that time he could rest only crouched on his elbows and knees. His back remained scarred for the rest of his life.[5]
What was their crime? What had Holmes done to deserve such brutal treatment? Holmes, Randall, and Clarke dared challenge the establishment. One of the hallmarks of the early Baptists is that they dared to challenge the establishment, whether in England or in the American colonies. Baptists were at the forefront of efforts to secure religious freedom, not only for themselves, but also for all. Early Baptists were opponents of established religion.
It concerns me that many modern Baptists tend to be part of the establishment rather than the challenge to the establishment. I’m not advocating here that we all go out and become gadflies. However, I do think Baptists need to remember that our tradition was born in the fires of controversy and that the earliest Baptists were courageous enough to challenge the standing order.
There is a certain religious mindset in our culture today that seems to want the government on its side to do its bidding. Priestly religion! Regardless of political party, when the church starts courting government support and vice-versa, we find ourselves in danger of becoming more and more like Amaziah. Religion in America has thrived because it has had the freedom of Amos rather than the government identity of Amaziah!
Martin Marty once said that the Southern Baptist identity was so closely identified with Southern culture that the Southern Baptist Convention could be described as the “Catholic Church of the South” because of its pervasive influence on Southern culture.[6] We all know the sins of slavery and segregation that many Southern Baptists one time were guilty of. Perhaps it took Baptists such a long time to recognize their sin because like Amaziah, our religion had become too identified with the standing order.
II. Prophetic Religion: Freedom But No Comfort
The kind of religion exemplified by Amos is free. The only authority that Amos had to respond to was God. In verse 14 Amos made it clear that he was not a member of the “prophetic guild.” He was not a professional prophet. Other places in the Old Testament indicate that there was indeed a guild of professional prophets that the kings of Israel kept on the payroll. They functioned in ways similar to Amaziah. They were hired to keep the king happy. They never challenged the king. They never critiqued the king. And, they kept the king thinking that he was within the will of God.
Amos was different. “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos let it be known that he was beholden to no one except God. He was not on the king’s payroll so he could say what he believed God wanted him to say. And, this freedom allowed him to speak God’s true word to the people in the Northern Kingdom.
One of the most powerful images I have ever witnessed on television occurred in June of 1989. It was the image of that one, lone, Chinese man, unknown to this day, who stood in defiance in front of Chinese tanks and held his ground, holding up the progression of those tanks in the street near Tiananmen Square in Peking, China. There had been days of rioting and student protests. Hunger strikes had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students wanted one thing: Freedom. Ground Zero was Tiananmen Square. Finally, fearful of losing complete control, the Chinese government ordered tanks into the Square to put down the rioters. What happened to this man, no one will know. Who he was no one will know. But, that one image completely captured the essence of the Baptist tradition of dissent. There used to be a time when Baptists were symbolized by that one lone man standing in the face of insurmountable odds.
Like Amos 800 years before Christ, and this one man in Tiananmen Square, Baptists have a tradition of being prophetic when we need to be. I don’t know of a time in my life when a Baptist prophetic voice of dissent is more needed. We need to remember that God loves the entire world, not just America. And, when the temptation comes to identify God only with America, good Baptists need to stand up and say “no!”
As we celebrate our nation’s birth tomorrow, let us be reminded that in this great land we have the freedom to challenge the standing religious order. And let us also be reminded that we should never get too comfortable in our religion to the point where we become like Amaziah and are unable to listen to the Amoses of the world!
[1] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 45.
[2] H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, (Nashville: Broadman Press: 1990): p. 72. (I have “Americanized” the English wording and spelling from the original quoted by McBeth).
[3] See Roy Honeycutt, Amos and His Message, Broadman, 1963, 132-144.
[4] Ibid., 133.
[5] Taken from Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, p. 140.
[6] Bill Leonard, God’s Last and Only Hope, p. 3.

Our Senate and the Flag

This week, the United States Senate came from within one vote of kicking into overdrive the process to amend the U.S. Constitution to outlaw something that is not a problem in our society: flagburing. Amazing! In the 1970s, women all over our country were being denied equal rights in the workplace and everywhere else and yet, the Equal Rights Amendment could never get passed. H. Ross Perot unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992 partly on a platform of advocating for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution which would prohibit deficit spending by the U. S. government. He got nowhere! And, now our Senate, if it had had one more vote, would have probably initiated an amendment to change the 200 plus year old Constitution to outlaw something that most of us have never witnessed! All I can say is these Senators are terrified to stand up for what it right and are cynically using our flag to play politics in the face of the upcoming November election. Shameful! And, as a Democrat, I am even angrier at the 14 Senators from my own party who voted for the Amendment.

Dennis Rogers, a columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer had a great column on this issue this week. I will include it below:

Dennis Rogers, Staff Writer
There comes a moment in every military funeral when the emotions are almost too much to bear. For many, it begins when pallbearers gently lift the American flag from the casket.
It is a choreographed display of military tradition and respect. Time seems to stand still as stoic young soldiers slowly and reverently fold the flag.
There must be no wrinkles or creases in this, the last flag. At the end, when the flag has been folded exactly 13 times, there must only be a constellation of clean white stars showing on a field of bright blue.
The senior officer cradles the flag gently against his chest as he steps forward to present it to the family. Then there is a final, lingering, farewell salute. Often the only sound is weeping.
Seven times this year I have witnessed this painfully beautiful ballet. Seven times I have watched as broken-hearted wives or parents, with trembling hands, took the flag. They almost always clutch it to their heart, as if it is the last embrace of the young son, daughter or husband they sent off to war.
America's respect for our flag is heartfelt. That's why it's so sad to see politicians exploit that love for their political gain.
Just as surely as mosquitoes arrive in time for Fourth of July celebrations, so does the annual attack on the Bill of Rights. Last night, the Senate narrowly defeated yet another proposed constitutional amendment to give Congress the authority to outlaw desecration of the American flag.
The amendment is aimed at those who would burn the flag as a form of protest. Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina supported the measure. The House had already passed it.
Be honest now: When is the last time you saw someone burn an American flag?
That's what I thought. Once again, politicians are creating a problem that doesn't exist so they can score political points by solving it. By forcing a vote on the proposed amendment, they hope to embarrass those with the courage to stand against it.
The Supreme Court has said for more than 15 years that flag burning, however irritating, is protected by the Bill of Rights. So, says Congress, let's change the document that has guaranteed freedom for two centuries.
The flag is not in jeopardy. There has been no rash of flag-burnings -- but you can bet there will be, if this amendment passes. The only thing really at risk is Americans' right to express what they think.
You can callously use a flag to draw customers to your used-car lot. You can drape it around your sweaty shoulders when, stoked on steroids, you win a sporting event. You can print it on a beach towel and sit on it.
But burn an American flag because you're mad at your senator and have chosen a dramatic way to make your point -- the very essence of political speech -- and some politicians want to put you in jail. It's not what you do, it's what you think that bothers them.
More than 2,500 American service members have been killed in the past three years. Perhaps if lawmakers spent more time at their funerals and less time creating straw enemies, they would know these Americans are more important than a flag made in a Chinese factory.
If politicians want to protect our real symbols of freedom, they can start with soldiers being sent into harm's way.Dennis Rogers can be reached at 829-4750 or

How My Christian Faith Enlightens My Politics

One line that I hear from Republicans and Republican talk-show hosts is that we need “less big government.” In fact, I believe some might go so far as to argue that all government social programs should be disbanded. So, let’s pretend that happens. Theoretically let's completely disband the government. No government regulation of any business interests. No taxes. I guess we have to work out something about that military which is supposed to protect us (although I don't think we're being protected very well right now by their energies being diverted in the "splendid little war" in Iraq!). They don't want any taxation taken "from the citizens by force" so how are we going to sustain a military? Private donations? I don't know.

Anyway, let's keep going. Let's just depend on the good will of all American citizens. No one will be prejudiced. No racism. After all, it’s the government's fault. It's all the government's fault because the government makes us benevolent racists. So, African-Americans (is it all right if I use the politically correct term?), Latinos, Arabs, and all the other many nationalities of people would get a completely fair shake in our society because without the evil government messing up everything, the playing field would be level and utopia would be with us. No racism. The Civil Rights Act, Americans With Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave legislation, minimum wage laws, occupational safety laws, and a host of other laws designed to protect people from being taken advantage of by the powerful (all programs vehemently opposed by Republicans by the way) would be gone because we'd no longer need them. Wow. I'd love to live in a society like that.

No one will be poor because all Americans will take care of the poor. There will be no orphans because all the good American citizens will adopt all the unwanted children. This one is particularly close to me because Pam and I are adoptive parents. We oppose abortion and have done something about it. My wife and I would take in a 1000 unwanted children if we could afford it. We've seen orphanages overseas. We've seen poverty. We've seen the conditions that some children live in and my heart breaks about it. The problem is that there are people in America who can afford to support 1000 unwanted children, who are opposed to abortion, but who don't lift a finger to help those children out. But, we don't want any government programs to help them do we? That makes those children "dependent upon the government." And we can't have that because that would make those children grow up to be lazy. And they'd never get a job. And they'd just depend on the government for the rest of their lives. They'd just be out there sucking off of the rest of us. Because that's what the evil government does isn't it. If we follow the Republican Party line on things like Welfare, they argue that it creates a class of people who are leeches on the rest of society. And we don't want our tax dollars going for them do we? Heaven forbid.

There will be plenty of college students for us here at Campbell because out of the generosity of wealthier Americans, millions of dollars will be given to colleges (more than what is already contributed by government loans, grants, etc.) so that the poorer students can go to college. And there will be no public universities (which might be good for us in the private colleges because we'd all be on equal footing!). The colleges would be busting at the seams because of the money flowing into them out of the generosity of the good American people who without the government interference and without being "forced to give up their money" would generously give to the colleges.

Furthermore, there would be no hungry people. Everyone has enough money for retirement from their 401Ks and their careers (Oh yeah, there will be no greedy executives like the Enron crowd that rob the retirements of their workers because we all know that the government made Ken Lay do it anyway!) And there are no worker's compensation programs. No Social Security. No disability because we all know that everyone on disability cheats anyway. They're just lazy people who don't want to work. So, like the orphaned children, they're just leeches sucking off the rest of us hard-working Americans who don't want our money forcefully taken from us. Besides, if a person is permanently disabled on the job, we can trust the good generosity of that factory or corporation owner to provide for that person and his/her spouse and children for the rest of their lives. I guess his children could go into the factory and work because now there are no child labor laws! "Better for them to be working than to be hungry after all." (A professor here at Campbell actually told me that once when I asked about child labor laws!) Great line. I've always remembered it. It is a great example of Christian compassion!)

There are no public schools. No fire departments, no police stations. Because once the government gets out of the picture, everyone behaves. And all the neighbors chip in out of the generosity of their good hearts and gives millions necessary to build and equip fire stations. And the schools, my goodness, without the government involved, how they will blossom! You'd never have to worry about the poor or the minorities being shut out of those private schools they can't afford to attend. Because the generous American citizens who now have all their hard-earned money will provide scholarships for them to attend. And, since there is no racism, they will be treated fairly and will have an equal place at the table won't they?
What about the food we eat? We would no longer need a Pure Food and Drug Act or any regulation of the food industry or the pharmaceutical industry. Let's just depend on the good generosity of the corporate executives to "do the right thing." They would never risk the safety of the American public to make a profit now would they? So, we would need no government regulation in those areas either. No meat inspection. No FDA.

What about the airwaves? We wouldn't need the FCC would we. (Glory to Jesus, Madelyn Murray O'Hair would finally be defeated because without the FCC she would never successfully get religious broadcasting off the air and maybe that stupid petition would go away!) We could just trust that all radio broadcasters and television broadcasters would realize that there are young minds in the audience. And Janet Jackson's breast would never been seen again by the American public. Quite frankly, I'm glad for the FCC because I don't want to have to explain those kinds of things to my 10 year-old and 5 year-old. I'd rather for the government just to outlaw such things. Maybe we can agree that this is one place we'd allow government regulation! I don't know. It seems like the Republicans want the government to regulate personal morality but when it comes to fiscal morality or business morality they seem to shy away from it. And, in all honesty, it works the other way for many on the democratic side too.

Now, I know that there are millions of good, well-meaning, praying Christians who vote Republican. And, I know that many of these people are very generous with their money. They give to their churches. They give to charitable organizations. And, if they saw a person in need, I trust that many of these people would give to help that person. The problem is that many Americans are not so generous. In fact, I would venture to guess that greed is a common human trait. And I'm not willing to trust the generosity of Americans to care for the underprivileged. I'm not willing to trust the corporate executives to "do the right thing." I'm commanded by Jesus to care for the underprivileged in our society. I take Matthew 25 quite literally. I believe God wants us to provide for the widows and orphans and underprivileged. I believe I'm called to make life better for those in society who don't have what I have. And furthermore, I believe I'm called by God to speak out loudly when I see injustice done. When I see the poor taken advantage of by the Ken Lays of the world I believe I'm supposed to fight it! When I see hungry, unwanted children I believe God wants me to act. When I see unjust war being waged in the name of all Americans I believe God calls me to speak out against it. So the bottom line is that I believe I can best follow the call of God on my life by supporting Democratic candidates. I believe the Democrats have been the party through the years (at least in the 20th century) who have attempted to put programs in place to care for the underprivileged. They have worked to end racism with the Civil Rights Act. They have been the party of the average wage-earning worker supporting unions and organized labor. Yeah, I know the labor unions make the product cost more. But money is not my god. So, the cost of an item I purchase is not the number one thing I care about. If I can't afford it, I don't buy it. And, (even though the Progressive Movement had Republicans at the turn of the century) they have consistently worked for legislation like the Families and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Social Security, and a host of other things which have been fought by Republicans. And, perhaps most importantly, I fear that if Republicans had their way unchecked, they undo all these programs. But, these programs make life better for millions of Americans. And I just can't trust that those people will be cared for if the government programs go away.

I do not understand how Christian people can support the party which wants to make life easier for the wealthiest of the wealthiest among us and which has consistently worked in the 20th century against the very programs I mentioned above (Great Society, New Deal, etc.) which were clearly designed to help people have a better life. For these reasons, I believe that the Democratic Party, even though it has its share of “crack-pots” is the party which affords me the greater chance of helping the kind of people that Jesus calls us to help and identify with.