In 2017, I was honored to be chosen as a BJC Fellow. Many of you have probably heard of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, as it is an organization that has been around in our nation’s capital protecting religious freedom for over 80 years – protecting freedom both from the government establishment of any one religion and for the free exercise of religion. In BJC’s own words:
Religious freedom is a pillar of American life, written into the U.S. Constitution and spelled out in the first 16 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As bold as those words are, however, it’s not always obvious how to apply them in our modern society.
BJC spends countless hours every year on Capitol Hill and in the Supreme Court advocating for and against legislation, testifying in Congress, writing friend-of-the-court briefs, uniting with other faith groups – all to ensure that every American has the right and freedom to follow his or her spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof).
Rooted in the Baptist heritage of “soul freedom,” religious liberty was a founding ideal for Baptists. As dissenters when other Christian groups were in power in the government, Baptists were persecuted for their beliefs and longed for the freedom to worship as they pleased.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, religious leaders such as Obadiah Holmes, Esther White, Martha Kimball, John Waller, James Ireland and John Clarke were whipped, fined or jailed for their Baptist beliefs.
In 1631, then-Baptist Roger Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony after escaping religious persecution, but then he experienced it again in the New World, too. He believed that faith should never be dictated by any government authority, and upon his banishment from Massachusetts, he went on to establish the colony of Rhode Island, where all religions (or those with no religion) were welcomed. He called it a “lively experiment” to protect “liberty of conscience.” He also founded the first Baptist congregation in colonial America in 1638 and began using the language “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
In the mid-1700s, Massachusetts-born Baptist minister John Leland spent much of his ministry preaching in Virginia. He befriended Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and it was under Leland’s leadership that Baptists wrote petitions in support of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Leland also convinced James Madison to include religious liberty in the Federal Constitution’s Bill of Rights in 1791. Leland said of government and religion:
“Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics…Let every man worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”
Leland ended up being integral in doing away with state-sponsored religion in Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Baptists have long fought for this basic human right, and it continues to be a right worth fighting for. Of course, the questions today are much more complex than in the 17th century, and we are navigating a more pluralistic society now. The questions are more nuanced and have to consider many issues of free exercise as well as non-establishment of religion:
Does a woman have the right to wear a religious headscarf at work? Is a bakery owner justified in refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple? Can there be prayer in schools? Christian monuments on government property? Partisan campaigning in houses of worship? These are the kinds of questions BJC grapples with.
BJC’s positions cannot be easily categorized as on the political “right” or “left.” Instead, the stand BJC takes is the one that, they believe, best supports religious freedom for all.
You can see more about the very deeply-considered positions BJC has taken by visiting their website at https://bjconline.org/mission-history/
On Monday and Tuesday this week, I, along with other BJC Fellows from the last 5 years of the Fellows program, had a chance to join with BJC and learn to advocate for religious liberty at the national level. We met with our representatives in Congress (both House and Senate) and introduced them to the work of BJC. Some had a long history of partnering with BJC, but others had not yet met anyone from this insightful organization that can offer deep resources for considering issues of religious liberty – most of which are not hashed out well in the media and need complex legal and social consideration.
I believe that understanding more deeply what religious freedom is (and is not) is terribly important for the complex times we live in. For instance, when we hear that prayer isn’t allowed in schools, we should know that BJC and others already helped secure the right for students to pray and express their faith in public schools – religion simply must not be state-sponsored (i.e., a teacher shouldn’t lead the prayer – that would cross the line and infringe on the religious freedom of other students who may follow a different denomination or faith group). Not establishing a single version of a religion in schools protects all faithful people (and those with no faith). Check out this handy PDF that you can print and share for more information about religious liberty in schools.
What I hope more than anything is that our elected representatives, and we as U.S. citizens will remain aware of the issues facing religious freedom, taking seriously why the Church and State being separate protects both from undue influence and protects us all from coerced faith.
Lastly, I hope we as Christians – Baptists who now are a majority faith group in the U.S. will remember our roots. We need to realize that our faith or our way of doing faith is not the only one out there, and that protecting everyone else’s right to believe as they wish continues to protect our own.