There is a local 4-mile race that I have been running for a number of years that is held on July 4th as part of the Independence Day holiday. It is called the Parley P. Pratt Freedom Run, and it is sponsored by a running acquaintance of mine and his church – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). A couple of hundred people from around the community of Columbia show up for the free race and the free pancake breakfast afterward. Before the race begins, there is a little talk about who Parley Pratt was. The true story is that Pratt was jailed in Boone County for his Mormon belief. He managed to escape and run to his freedom. After the story-telling, there is the reciting of the pledge of allegiance, followed by a prayer and then the race begins. My running friend, who knows I am a pastor, has asked me on several occasions if I would lead in prayer or share some thoughts. Usually I decline. Once I agreed to lead the prayer, and this time, he has asked me to speak on religious freedom. I told him that I would think about it and let him know. Having prayed, I realized that it was important for me to be willing to address all of the participants there (most who would not be Mormon) about the significance of religious freedom in America.
Religious freedom is built into our Constitution. It is imbedded in the 1st Amendment. The 1st amendment reads: “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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” There are 5 basic freedoms outlined: freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition. These five liberties are considered the cornerstone of our democracy. They are the big rocks of democracy.
So let us ask the question, “Why should religious freedom matter to us?” One way we can get to an answer would be to ask what if religious freedom was taken away and we were forced to only follow one religion or perhaps no religion? Could we be satisfied with that? What if the official religion was Anglican (as in England), or Islam (as in the middle east), or no religious freedom (as in China)? What if the official religion was Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic? I think we would come to a clear sense that to have religious freedom is to allow people to pursue God as they deem right. I would not want someone to force a belief on me and I should not force my belief on another. As one of my Bible College teachers said; “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
In preparing for the World Refugee Day interview, I came upon a quote from one of our refugees. He said, “We have so many disagreements in Africa. But when we came to America, we saw great diversity and we saw people were not fighting but getting along. It has helped us to see that we can live alongside one another even though we have these differences.” America is an example to the world of how we can be a very diverse people – diverse in culture, in religious practice, in political persuasion, and yet still live peaceably alongside one another.
I have friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and atheist. I would not want their freedom to believe to be taken from them anymore than I would want that for myself. Christianity is not an argument that is won. It is a revelation that comes from God by the Holy Spirit. It is not something that can be forced from without but must come by grace through the effective working of the Holy Spirit into the heart of a person.
The historian, Arthur Schlesinger, said, “The genius in America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins.
Jon Meacham in his book, The Soul of America – The Battle for Our Better Angels, quotes President Harry S. Truman saying this; “It’s not a bad idea to read those ten amendments (known as the Bill of Rights) every once in a while. Not enough people do it, and that’s one of the reasons we’re in the trouble we’re in.”
I will close with CS Lewis and his thoughts on the worst sins, “The sins of the flesh (sex, appetite, addiction) are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins…the worst pleasures…the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred…are diabolical. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course, it is better to be neither.” Lewis doesn’t leave us sitting self-satisfied in our self-righteousness, does he?
So yes, we believe in the Apostles Creed. And we believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And we believe no man can come to the Father but through Jesus Christ. And we believe in the revelation and saving power of the Holy Spirit, the free gift of grace, and God’s heart for all people to come to the knowledge of Him. But we also believe this cannot be forced or dictated by a law. We should seek to uphold freedom of religion and that must go not only for ourselves, but also for others. This we know, we are called to love one another. And we are called to love our neighbor who may be a Samaritan, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist. That is the parable of the Good Samaritan.