Independence Day, like all birthdays, is a time of appropriate celebration — and needed reflection. As we celebrate the birth of our nation, let us give careful thought to the meaning of this intersection of our faith and our freedom.
There is an interesting relationship in our lives as a people of faith — that transcends national, political, geographical and social boundaries — and as citizens of a nation to which we pledge allegiance. It isn’t always easy to maintain that delicate balance.
So it is good to reflect on the relation of our faith and our freedom. Since we are committed to them both, and we don’t have to choose between them, maybe the best question to guide us is: What does our freedom do for our faith, and what does our faith do for our freedom?
We have guidance in thinking about this question from those who have traveled this journey before us. Their voices offer counsel as we embrace our roles as followers of Christ and as citizens of our nation.
A few voices from the Bible speak directly to the relation of covenant faith and national life. The Ten Commandments begin: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2-3).
When the covenant community of Israel occupied the Promised Land, they asked Samuel to appoint a king. When Samuel warned them that a king would change them from being a people of God to being a people of the king, forcing their young people into service and taking their property to enrich the few and to reduce the many to poverty, still they insisted on a king, so they could be “like the other nations” (1 Sam. 8:20).
Three generations later, when this prediction had come to pass, the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant …, I will surely tear the kingdom from you ….” (1 Kgs. 11:11).
A century later, when the alliance between Israel’s religion and its government had become so entwined that it was sanctioning all manner of injustice, the prophet Amos spoke forcefully the word of the Lord: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24).
The rest of the prophetic tradition, for the next 200 years (especially Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah), speaks forcefully against the corrupting influence of a too close alliance of religion and political power.
In a later and very different political context, someone asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” He replied: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:17, 21).
Paul offers counsel on living responsibly in the world, without letting the values of the world shape who we are: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
And further: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. … For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are the ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13: 1, 6-7)
As helpful as these texts are in pointing to the delicate relationship of religious faith and the political/governmental dimension of life, they do not speak as directly to some of our contemporary concerns as we might wish.
Sometimes we need to look beyond specific “proof texts” to get a sense of the larger message of the biblical testimony. The faith journeys of the mothers and fathers of our part of God’s family offer some interesting features:
First, the people of the covenant have a citizenship in a community that transcends all earthly kingdoms. God’s covenant people have been wandering nomads, slaves in Egypt, a wilderness people, illegal aliens in the land of Canaan, a prosperous kingdom, a defeated and exiled people, frightened discoverers of a new sense of who God is, subjects of the Roman Empire, and citizens of just about every nation of the world. Yet, God has said, “I am with you,” and that commitment has never been limited to a particular context.
Second, covenant community is at greatest risk of being unfaithful when it is closely identified with any kingdom. Three examples illustrate this point:
1. The kingdoms of David and Solomon were the high point of ancient Israel’s political power and economic prosperity. Foreign rulers came from all over to Jerusalem to see the magnificence of the capital city, its palace and its temple. But the historians and the prophets of a later period evaluated this golden age as the low point of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, because they had exchanged the God whose presence had sustained them in the wilderness for a god of success, power and prosperity.
2. The early Christian movement was a barely recognized fledgling group of renegade Jews and alien Gentiles for its first few generations. Churches were planted, many in secret, throughout the dominant empire of Rome. Letters and gospels were written that have become our scriptures, all in relative obscurity in the shadow of the mighty Roman Empire. Things changed in the fourth century when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire and the church became an arm of the empire rather than a covenant community that defined itself by the teachings of Christ. When the community of faith became synonymous with the nation, they both lost the core of their identity.
3. A more contemporary example of what happens when a biblical faith gets too closely identified with a national agenda is the Holocaust. “Christian” Germany lost its moorings and justified the murder of millions of people who were identified by manipulators of fear and ignorance as the “Jewish problem.” It is a sobering reminder of what can happen when a concern for national purity wraps itself in the cloak of religious righteousness and identifies the “others” as worthy of removal.
Voices of our faith heritage are clear: the covenant community is always in a world and part of a world, but it loses itself when it is defined by any of the world’s national agendas. “You shall have no other gods before me” seems to include the god of nationalism as well as the fertility gods of Canaan.
The Baptist movement was birthed in 17th-century England in a commitment to religious liberty and the need for separation of religion from the constraints or support of the state. Thomas Helwys spoke directly to King James I that the king is not God and has no authority over the consciences and souls of his subjects.
Roger Williams, also in the 17th century, was banished from Massachusetts by the Puritan authorities for his commitment to religious liberty. He founded Rhode Island, and the first Baptist church on American soil, as a haven of freedom from the tyranny of state-sponsored religion. Williams affirmed in 1640: “An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and the religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.”
John Leland, a Baptist from Virginia, influenced James Madison to push for a constitutional amendment to protect religious liberty. We know the result of that influence as the first amendment to the Constitution.
In 1773 Isaac Backus, another colonial Baptist, offered: “Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but quite the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.”
The commitment to religious liberty of these early Baptists was not just for themselves, but for everyone.
The earliest English settlers and colonists wanted to establish a Christian commonwealth. The Puritans had their issues with the Church of England, but their desires to control the religious dimension of life in North America were no less rigid.
Literature from the time speaks not only of the desire for a kind of Christian utopia, but also of stern discipline (remember the Salem witch trials) of those who did not conform. By the late 18th century, when the revolutionary spirit was leading toward the Declaration of Independence and the formulation of the Constitution, colonial leaders had benefitted from a century of philosophical and political thought, as well as a century of experience with the tensions of religion and governance.
They were quite clear in their concerns for the proper role of religion in American public life. The clearest expression is in the first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The principle of the separation of church and state was clearly in the minds of the founders as the way to protect both the integrity of religious faith and the liberty that was so dear to them.
For example, George Washington affirmed: “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” The 1796 Treaty between the United State and Tripoli stated: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
James Madison noted in 1822: “We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government.”
Later, in 1947, Hugo Black, the only Baptist to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, affirmed that neither state nor federal government may pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.
These testimonies and others respected the sacredness of the religious dimension of life too much to institutionalize it in the frameworks of the government of this nation. However, the experiment in liberty was not without its flaws. The freedom some early advocates affirmed left out the half of the population that happened to be female and the significant percentage that were slaves.
But they laid the foundation for later refinements that would expand liberty beyond the limits of their time. Part of that foundation was the realization that religion and government (faith and freedom) will flourish better toward their respective destinies if each is allowed to develop and refine itself without the controlling influence of the other.
Now back to the question: What does our freedom do for our faith, and what does our faith do for our freedom?
Freedom allows for faith to grow without constraint of external coercion. It encourages an open and honest search for truth and a context for shared discovery.
It enables free expression without fear of judgment, punishment or rejection. It promotes an atmosphere of appreciation and respect for all faiths, while encouraging the deepest levels of commitment to our own.
On the other hand, faith gives character and substance to our freedom, helping it move beyond selfish and superficial expressions (concern for one’s own “rights” or thinking of freedom as being able to do whatever one wants) — moving beyond the seasonal fireworks and flag waving of a Fourth of July celebration to a deeper-seated commitment to the principles of opportunity, justice and compassion.
That is something to celebrate on this Independence Day — along with committing ourselves to protecting against both direct and subtle distortions. NFJ
By J. Colin Harris
—J. Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.