The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is getting quite a workout these days. In case you have forgotten, the First Amendment reads as follows:
“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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
So, for instance, the issue of building a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks, what is known as Ground Zero, is sorely testing the free exercise clause. And when a Florida pastor and others around the country threaten to burn copies of the Quran, the limits of free speech get tested.
I think we forget how radical the Constitution was when it was first presented. We forget how hard devotees to the idea of separation of church and state fought for this amendment. Baptist pastor John Leland went so far as to threaten to run against James Madison for a delegate’s seat at the constitutional convention if Madison did not promise to offer a religious freedom amendment.
We also forget how much pain was inflicted by a majority faith on minority beliefs that paved the way for the disestablishment clause. Here are just a few examples.
In 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for the crime of being a Quaker.
In 1637, Mary Hutchinson was banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for life. At her trial, Gov. Winthrop remarked that she was “a woman not fit for our society.” Her crime? She was preaching contrary to the established Christianity of the colony.
In 1635, Roger Williams was banned from the Plymouth Colony for criticizing the Plymouth church for its close ties to the state. He also criticized local law enforcement officials for imposing fines and even jail time on those who broke the first five of the Ten Commandments. He established the Rhode Island colony and founded the First Baptist Church in America.
In 1774, 18 Baptists in Northhampton, Mass., were arrested and put in jail. Their crime? They refused to pay taxes that supported the local congregational minister.
I could go on and on with examples like this. The fact is we have simply forgotten what it is like to be a religious minority. We have forgotten what it feels like for a majority to impose its will on us and keep us from worshiping as we see fit.
As the majority faith in America today, Christians need to recommit themselves to that radical document that has given us our religious freedom. In America, we believe in religious freedom and that means being willing to defend a minority faith and protect the rights of devotees of that faith to worship how and where they feel called.
The only way we can be sure that there is religious freedom for anyone is to guarantee religious freedom for everyone.
Otherwise we betray everything our country stands for. We betray the genius that lies behind the U.S. Constitution. And as Christians, we betray the wisdom Jesus gave us for dealing with people who are different.
“Love your neighbor,” Jesus taught, “as you love yourself.”
And how about this nugget from the mind of the Lord: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Let’s test the limits of those words.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.