Every July 4th 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, or have no at all, and not have to worry about religious 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.
The 4th of July also marks a special day in the history of Baptists, particularly Virginia Baptist history. On that day in 1802, "Swearing" Jack Waller died after preaching himself to exhaustion. If you are a Baptist and don't know "Swearing Jack," you should. His name was actually John Waller but he had the nickname "Swearing Jack" before his conversion to Christ. By happenstance he was on the grand jury that indicted a Virginia Baptist preacher named Lewis Craig, the first Baptist preacher brought before the court in Virginia for preaching without a state license. This occurred in the 1760s. Because of the powerful testimony of Craig in the hearing before the grand jury, Swearing Jack confessed Christ as his Savior and became a Baptist preacher himself. He experienced persecution because of it, serving time in prison with some other Virginia Baptist preachers in 1766 for preaching without a state license. Of course, the Constitution, and particularly the Bill of Rights, changed things a little more than two decades later.
Did Jesus talk about separation of church and state or religious freedom for all? Well, the way that Christians behaved for much of Christian history and the way that many Christians today treat those of different faiths makes one wonder. However, I believe there are some places in the teachings of Jesus from which we can build a case for religious freedom. For example, in Mark 12, when the Pharisees asked Jesus if they had to pay their taxes, Jesus in turn asked to see a coin. He asked them a question: "Whose head is this and whose title?" Their answer: "The emperor's." Jesus then said, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." From this I believe we can draw a conclusion that Jesus saw two realms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world.
There is one other place in Jesus' teaching that I believe is the foundation for an ethic of religious freedom. I believe it can be found in the so-called "Golden Rule." In Matthew 7:12 Jesus said, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you." Can you imagine how just following this simple teaching of Jesus (the thought of which is found in all the world's major religions) would revolutionize our world, our nation, our state, our communities? This simple teaching is the key to how we should respond to those whose faith may be different than ours. How would we want them to treat us? That is how we should treat them. Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Liberal Christian, Fundamentalist Christian . . .
And so at the heart of one of the most common sayings of Jesus is I believe the key to living and celebrating our religious freedom as Americans. This coming Thursday, before you fire up the barbecue, before you go to the parade, before you watch the fireworks, think about your Muslim neighbor down the street. Or think about your Buddhist co-worker. Or think about the Christian who believes differently than you do on a certain point of doctrine. And, remember the Golden Rule!