Part of my Lenten Discipline this year is to speak for religious liberty and the separation of Church and State. Using all media at my disposal, I am speaking as often as possible to defend the sacred Baptist principle of religious liberty.
One of the insidious threats to religious liberty, ironically, is that the more American the American Christian churches become, the less religious liberty means to the people populating the churches. Baptists, in particular, have always been gifted when in the minority, but have struggled with being a majority since we seem ill-equipped to resist the power that comes with such status. Liberty can then become the “freedom to impose on others” all kinds of authority. It can lead small government true believers to insist on a “big government” when it comes to issues of human sexuality. In other words, don’t mess with the money, but here is how it is going to be when it comes to sex.
Then there is the subtle change that occurs when churches become more American than Christian. Our sense of being an international church diminishes. We are less likely to be interracial, interfaith, interdenominational, and international.
Stanley Hauerwas once told a group of students, “I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not at all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example:
- How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
- How many of you worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
- How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
- How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1st as the ‘New Year’? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.
- How many of you worship in a church that recognizes ‘Mother’s Day’? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.”
Hauerwas wants to make us aware of how odd being a Christian makes you. Why? Because we have spent so much time trying to make sure that the world thinks we are exactly like them.
If we are more Christian than American, we will be more likely to embrace our “oddness” as a virtue. We will develop power to resist the culture’s claims (and less likely to be “malled” into excessive purchase of commodities). James McClendon claims that we should encourage policies of acceptance, freedom, inclusiveness, and cooperation in contrast to the Babel-like drive to unity which has marked the great empires and totalitarianisms of our era.
True religious liberty, like the arms of Jesus stretched out on the cross, extends across the globe to embrace all racial groupings, national entities, tribes, clans, families, classes, trade and work groups, religions, cities, countryside, and sexual identities. It is this liberty I am sworn to protect.