At the turn of the 17th century, an English lawyer named Thomas Helwys had become part of a separatist congregation in Lincolnshire (it is to this congregation that many Baptists trace their roots). They were dissenters from the Church of England, established by King Henry VIII. In what is considered the first written call for religious freedom in the English language, Helwys wrote, “If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane laws made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”
According to William M. Pinson Jr., “[King James I] had Helwys thrown in Newgate Prison, a terrible place, filled with rodents, insects, disease, filth, and hardened criminals. Helwys, a devout pastor and peaceful citizen, had done nothing violent or immoral to warrant such punishment.” He died in prison.
Across the Atlantic, a few decades later, Anglican clergyman-turned-separatist Roger Williams had developed his own religious convictions that put him at odds with the Puritans. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, you were subject to whippings or imprisonment for not attending worship or other offenses against the church. You could not vote if you were not a member of the correct church. Your taxes supported the church. Pinson writes, “The attitude of those in power in Massachusetts was that if people did not agree with the ruling saints, they could leave.” (Sound familiar?) If you chose to stay but insisted on a different way of worshiping and believing, “the consequences were severe. For example, four Quakers were hanged in the colony.”
Roger Williams (not Thomas Jefferson) was the first to speak of a “wall of separation” between church and state, and wrote that “an enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, and denies the principles of Christianity ….” Williams was threatened with exile, so he fled to modern-day Rhode Island, where he not only established the first Baptist church on American soil but chartered the first colony that guaranteed complete religious freedom for all people. He knew firsthand what religious persecution was.
Once upon a time, “religious freedom” was the cry of the oppressed minority when basic human rights were being denied them by their own government because of their religious beliefs. Today, in the United States, “religious freedom” is becoming the cry of the privileged and powerful concerning what they can rightfully deny someone else because of religious beliefs. It has been a radical shift, and it is an embarrassing travesty.
Religious freedom used to be about gaining the protection of the law, not putting oneself above the law. In the late 1700s, Baptist minister John Leland wrote, “Let every man speak freely without fear — maintain the principles that he believes — worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”
Even the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), widely seen as a correction to an unpopular Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, came about as an effort to protect religious minorities from undue marginalization. It was not meant to allow Christian business owners to remove from within the reach of their tentacles anything or anyone offending their religious sensibilities.
Unfortunately, that’s the space we’ve entered. In 2014, under the guise of “religious freedom,” and stemming from a medically dubious claim about abortifacients, Hobby Lobby won the right to micromanage what kinds of contraception their female employees can obtain with their employer sponsored insurance.
Recently, we’ve seen a new string of so-called “religious freedom bills” in the states. Even though elected officials like Governor Mike Pence of Indiana disingenuously claim their state RFRA bills are not about LGBT issues, anyone paying attention knows what’s going on. In the last few years, a number of local cases involving Christian bakers, photographers and florists refusing to serve gay couples gained national attention. Lo and behold, new state religious freedom bills were introduced in state legislatures shortly thereafter. The “fix” in Indiana was not a well thought out policy but a hasty response to intense pressure that has left both sides unsatisfied.
Despite claims that Indiana’s bill did not differ significantly from the federal RFRA, it did in several ways. Most notably, it extended the issue of religious freedom beyond the context of citizens and their government. For those who wrote and fought for the First Amendment, the context of religious freedom was the struggle to gain the right to worship in the place and manner of our choosing, and govern our churches as we choose, without government interference.
Being required to conduct your business fairly and within commerce regulations does not constitute the loss of freedom or religious persecution. As Helwys expressed in his writing, citizens should obey “all humane laws,” asking only that the state let God be the judge of their religion. For help with determining whether you’re suffering religious persecution, see Emily C. Heath’s 10 question quiz.
J. Brent Walker’s advice seems prudent: “Try loving your LGBT neighbors unconditionally and understand that providing them goods and services in the marketplace is an act of Christian hospitality, not an indication of approval of their nuptial decisions.” One must also wonder why we don’t see the same Christian business owners singling out other perceived sins.
Those of us who can worship when and how we choose need to realize what side of privilege we’re on. Religious persecution is still very real today. Let’s not diminish and insult the experience of those who actually suffer. American Christians tend to confuse criticism with persecution.
Jesus said to his followers, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matt. 5:41). This teaching was delivered within the context of first-century Palestine under Roman occupation in which impressment was common; i.e., a Roman soldier conscripting someone to carry his equipment. I can imagine such acts made the Jewish people feel complicit in Rome’s oppression, yet Jesus told them to go the extra mile.
Can we, who enjoy a much better situation and amazing religious freedom, find it within ourselves to be just as gracious? Let’s not just bake one cake, but two.