As we celebrate our country’s independence this week, it is good for us to contemplate one of our country’s cherished values that is found in Amendment I of The Bill of Rights.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first thing to notice is the amendment restricts government not religion. “Establishment of religion” which congress is not allowed to do, in the context of the eighteenth century meant creating a national church. Some states at the time did have state churches, although the support for state churches was abandoned by 1833. But what is the free exercise of religion.
Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in which describing Amendment I he used the phrase: “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” That phrase continues to be debated. What is clear though is the church is being marginalized more and more today. It is leading to erosions of what I think the free exercise of religion really is.
Freedom of religion has historically had several components. I have the right to my beliefs about religion. I can assemble with others and worship as I believe without disturbance. But I must also be able to share my faith and convert others. I must be able to bring my religious values into the public square. It is in this last category that we are seeing problems with the current political situation.
To illustrate the problem, a blind woman in Rhode Island was banned form a public park and library for sharing her Christian faith. The accusation is she “accost(ed) patrons by ‘stopping’ and ‘giving them religious pamphlets.’” She was giving out copies of the Gospel of John. Her version is “I do what the Pocket Testament League urges … Simply offer them a Gospel of John, the Word of God. No arguing.”* It sounds like what she was doing was fairly innocuous. You have to believe that religion should not be in the public square at all to take offense. After all, patrons could easily walk on by this woman and not take a copy of the Gospel of John. Religion must be in the public square if we are to truly have religions freedom. But that is indeed the challenge in the United States today.
Religious freedom includes the right to believe in God as we choose, the right to assemble for worship without interference, and the right to talk about our faith in public, to attempt to convert others, and to bring our values into the public square as we discuss the issues of the day. Egypt grants these first two to some Christian groups, but you can’t convert Muslims. I pray that this country’s religious freedom remains greater than that.
— Russ Holden