Religious freedom, actually radical religious freedom, is in the DNA of all healthy Baptists. Truth to tell, religious freedom may be the only special theological contribution Baptists may claim to have made to the broader Christian community.
Our Baptist forebears insisted such freedom must be absolute. It is for everyone, regardless of the decisions they may make with regard to religion.
Thomas Helwys, one of the founders of the Baptist movement and a good layman to boot, insisted that government had no role to play in religious matters. To put it mildly, his position was considered radical in his time, when almost everyone assumed government and religion must be formally connected. Helwys used startling language when he argued that each person must be free to choose (without fear of government interference or hope of government support) any religion or no religion.
From their beginnings in England down through the middle of the 20t century, Baptist leaders and churches held fast to such a position. Baptist leaders pushed for guarantees of religious freedom during the formative days of the United States, resulting in the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Even in the trying years of the early 20th century, as the nation wrestled with issues related to the rise of Russian communism, economic dislocations, civil strife between big business and workers, and immigration Baptist leaders continued to insist on full religious freedom for all.
Something happened, though, in the latter half of the 20th century. Many Baptists lost their nerve when it came to religious freedom. In part, this happened because Baptist churches failed to teach members about their heritage.
Technology also fueled the change as television and radio ministries took off. For the most part, the media ministers did not believe in full religious freedom. They argued that government should support religion, especially their brand (whatever that might be). Many good Baptist people, both lay and clergy, fell prey to their teachings.
Mostly, though, many of us abandoned radical religious freedom because of fear. World religions moved to our neighborhoods. Genuine diversity within broader American culture startled many Baptists. War and terrorism loomed, and yellow journalism thrived economically by packaging and marketing a culture of crisis.
Many Baptists reacted fearfully and began to look around for someone or some thing to “protect” religion, especially our kind of religion. Turning our back on our heritage, we looked to the power of government. To use a biblical image, we swapped our inheritance for a bowl of stew.
Mostly, I think, we became afraid we were about to become a minority, with all the loss of power that entails. We forgot or chose to ignore that Jesus was in the minority and that following him faithfully more often than not will put us in the same position.
Jesus respected the religious freedom of each person. He relied on persuasion, sacrifice and the work of Holy Spirit to lead others to God and to change their lives. That’s how Christians who believe in religious freedom act.
Is religious freedom dangerous? Yes. Practicing religious freedom requires that we be willing to endure being a minority, reject the lure of power, and face the possibility of suffering. Religious freedom, though, is the way of Jesus, and so is the only path open to those who would follow him.