Welcome to Part 2 of the Celebrating Religious Freedom series here at CBFBlog.com!Today’s post is by Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey. Mary Elizabeth is a former intern with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and served as co-chair of the BJC’s Religious Liberty Council from 2009-2012.
Mary Elizabeth lives with her husband and children in Durham, N.C. They worship at Watts Street Baptist Church where Mary Elizabeth is the Interim Director of the Children’s Music Ministry. She is also involved with ministry to those who have suffered infertility, miscarriage and infant loss
by Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey
Fireworks, brass marching bands, waving flags—celebrations of July 4th are grand. Yet, as I anticipate well-orchestrated July 4th celebrations, another freedom celebration holds my attention: the spontaneous, spirit-driven dance of Miriam.
The Exodus story details the escape of the people Israel from Egypt where they were enslaved and where they could not freely worship.
The sea parts, allowing for God’s people to pass through, and closes again, holding Pharaoh’s army and all of his political power at bay. Safely on the other side, Miriam, Moses’ sister, raises her tambourine and leads the women in what was certainly raucous dancing and praise. (Exodus 15:20).
A study of Exodus often focuses on FROM whom and what the people escaped: the people Israel were freed from service to Pharaoh, and we Christians often find a connection as we consider God’s ability to free us from that which seems to demand our service.
But, escape is obtained midway through Exodus. The entire other half of the text remains, and it is long and nuanced. The remainder begs the question: FOR whom and what were the people of Israel freed? Indeed, the people Israel were freed from service to Pharaoh for service to God; freed so that they might freely worship. So too, our own freedom comes so that we might be free to serve and worship God, our Creator and Sustainer.
Baptists celebrating July 4th must be keenly aware that our freedom to serve and worship God rests upon the First Amendment to the US Constitution, on preservation of a clear separation between the ministry of the church and the power of the state. This freedom to worship without interference from the Crown, Pharaoh or the Legislature is one for which blood, body and lives were the price. Protected by the First Amendment, Baptists have long and clearly, articulated a theology in which our service to and worship of God is entirely free from government oversight or intervention.
A clear articulation of this is found in the Baptist Faith and Message, Section XV11: Religious Liberty.
The Baptist Faith and Message, first written in 1925, was revised in 1963 and again in 2000. Many sections were changed significantly during these revisions. Significantly, through the two revisions and 75 years that separate the first and most recent versions of the Baptist Faith and Message, the section entitled “Religious Liberty” was altered by only one word.
Only one. (Although the scriptural references offered in support of this statement changed quite a bit!)
The sentence which read “The state owes to the church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends” became “The state owes to every church…” The change from “the” to “every” clarifies a wide view of those who are protected.
The claims made in 1925, 1963, and 2000 speak directly to the current debates about the separation of church and state in the United States. The assertions that every church is owed protection, that no ecclesiastical group should be favored, that the church must not allow civil government to carry out its work, that the state must neither impose penalties for any religious opinion nor use taxes to support any form of religion, and “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power,” all serve as a Baptist witness to this separation.
And accordingly, government money should never fund religious education through vouchers to religious schools, religious institutions should never look to the government to support their work, and, quite simply, legislative prayer is ill-advised.
These issues are being hammered out now. This is a critical moment in which Baptists must testify.
These claims also demonstrate a clear theology by which it is unconscionable to claim discrimination when the government in any form—public schools, local boards, the military, or the federal government—doesn’t champion one’s specific religious beliefs.
We have all, each of us, been freed to serve and worship God. We are free to pray—or not. Our children are free to pray—or not. We are free to go to church or temple or mosque—or not. We are free to believe what we hear in worship—or not.
We are free to share our faith with others—or not. We are free to send our children to religions schools—or not.
This freedom is precious and hard won. And our own religious liberty thrives because those who would allow religion to be processed and manufactured by the machine of the state are held at bay—by the Constitution and by faithful Baptist witness.
As we bask in bright fireworks and Sousa marches, let us also join in Miriam’s tambourine and dance. For we, too, have been freed to worship. And so we praise God.
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