In 1636, renowned Baptist minister Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His advocacy of religious freedom, separation of church and state and the humane and just treatment of the indigenous Narragansett people brought him into repeated conflict with the government and religious majority of his day.
Williams, founder of the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island, based his religious convictions on the right of every person to freely exercise their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience. He believed that all persons should be free from persecution by their government as a result of practicing their faith – or no faith. Likewise, Williams insisted that all persons should be free from intolerance imposed by a majority religion and be true to the revelation of God most aligned with their heart and the conviction within their soul.
As a Baptist preacher, I am inspired by the legacy of Roger Williams. As a Christian, I am inspired by Jesus, who dissented against the political and religious leaders of His day who unashamedly legislated “unjust laws and oppressive decrees,” and who exploited the poor and the “least of these” for their own power and political gain (Isaiah 10:1).
As reported by Baptist News Global, it was the Christian religious practice of dissent, in addition to the Baptist tradition of protecting the rights of free exercise of religion, that compelled me to stand and freely exercise my faith to disrupt Jeff Sessions at a gathering of Christian supremacy and right-wing, Christian extremism disguised as a luncheon to discuss the future of religious liberty. Additionally, I took a stand to defend the “soul freedom” of all people and the intrinsic, God given value of all people regardless of their beliefs, race, sexuality, gender identity or immigration status in this country.
“The Trump administration has clearly demonstrated that it is no champion of true religious liberty.”
By dismantling protections afforded to asylum seekers, supporting the separation of families as sound administration of law and endorsing a “religious liberty task force” masquerading as religiously sanctioned discrimination, the Trump administration has clearly demonstrated that it is no champion of true religious liberty. Nor, did ousted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions demonstrate the principles of justice, compassion, mercy and hospitality at the core of Christian faith.
As Methodist minister Will Green reminded the country, a Christian’s free exercise of religion is to love the stranger within our borders and to extend hospitality to the needy (Matt. 25:42-43). Our religious freedom, as proposed by the founders of this nation, should be to support the free exercise of minority faith traditions and not consume them within a dominant culture of Christian normativity.
Our free exercise of religion should never allow the dictates of our faith to work as a cover for discrimination. Nor should our free exercise lead us to applaud, defend or turn a blind eye to the images of a woman and her children being bombarded by tear gas on the United States and Mexico border. Rather, as Christians, our free exercise of faith means working to ensure that those to whom Jesus came to minister – the poor, the sick, the hungry, the incarcerated, the immigrant – are not trampled underfoot in our common life and public policy.
Likewise, our religious liberty should be to engage our sacred scriptures and be moved by the prophetic witness of our traditions to lead our nation to beat its swords into plowshares, its spears into pruning hooks, its guns into community centers and billion-dollar increases in military spending into higher teacher pay and scholarships for education.
“A Christian’s free exercise of religion is to love the stranger within our borders and to extend hospitality to the needy.”
Most of all, as followers of Jesus, our religious liberty is grounded in the command: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
When Christians are moved first by the command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, we may find ourselves in conflict with an unjust law. For the sake of our faith and collective futures, we should embrace the words of the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr.: “I believe firmly that it is necessary to have moments of dissent in order to challenge something that may be leading the nation down the wrong path.”
As we enter into this season of Advent, let us exercise our faith by preparing the way for our Lord. Like John the (first!) Baptist, I believe that includes calling our nation to repentance, so the kingdom of heaven may return near.