In a sermon entitled “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” preached and published in the late 18th century, American colonists John Leland contended:[quote style=”full”] To produce uniformity in religion. Rulers often fear that if they leave every man to think, speak and worship as he pleases, that the whole cause will be wrecked in diversity; to prevent which they establish some standard of orthodoxy to effect uniformity. But is uniformity attainable? Millions of men, women and children, have been tortured to death to produce uniformity, and yet the world has not advanced one inch towards it. And as long as men live in different parts of the world, have different habits, education and interests, they will be different in judgment, humanly speaking. [/quote]
Leland wrote these words as a champion for the religious liberty of Baptist pastors in Virginia and other colonies. He supported the formulation and adoption of the First Amendment of the Constitution. His words ring poignantly true considering the recent efforts by the mayor of Houston to curtail the First Amendment rights of several pastors in that city.
The First Amendment protects Americans from the establishment of a state religion. It also protects the freedom of speech, including the freedom of religious expression. Particularly in Leland’s time, the First Amendment protected Baptist pastors in Virginia from persecution by Anglicans for preaching doctrines contrary to that of the state church. State officials incarcerated these Baptist pastors for preaching without a license in an effort to protect the doctrinal purity of the state church form the “errant” preaching of these dissenters.
The mayor of Houston’s actions look very similar to the actions taken by these 18th century Virginian officials. Some people might argue that Mayor Parker is not seeking to espouse any particular doctrine; however, such a conclusion is misguided and incorrect. By asking for these pastors’ sermons to enforce the omission of particular content that counters an agenda promoting homosexuality, the mayor actually seeks to produce a uniformity in the doctrine of “tolerance.”
This doctrine contends that Americans should tolerate beliefs and behaviors of their fellow countrymen because of their right to “live and let live.” She apparently considers anyone who would oppose such a belief of toleration as intolerant at best and criminal at worst; however, is the mayor not being intolerant in preaching her message of tolerance? Does the same freedom of expression of speech and action that she champions for the homosexual community not also apply to these Houston pastors? They have just as much right to preach their faith of biblical beliefs as she does to preach her faith of “tolerance.”
In his sermon, Leland asks:[quote style=”full”] Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of the mathematics. 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, i.e. see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging of him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death; let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government. [/quote]
Mayor Parker promotes a dangerous proposition and view regarding the relationship between government and freedom of religion and conscience. If she has her way, we will return to a time when the government promotes a state religion, perhaps secularism or tolerance, in the name of uniformity. In so doing, she is advocating an attack on freedom of conscience no different than the attacks on religion that occurred under Soviet communism or now exist in communist China.
We would do well as Christians and Americans to review the history behind the First Amendment and the great price that Baptist pastors in Virginia and other states paid to promote religious liberty in our nation. Are you prepared as Christians and pastors to champion those rights today? Like the Baptist pastors of 18th century America, are you prepared to go to jail for preaching biblical messages? Remember the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Dr. Tim McKnight is Assistant Professor of Missions and Youth Ministry at Anderson University. He has over 21 years of experience in ministry, serving churches in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. He served in youth ministry for 12 years and in the pastorate for 9 years. In addition, Dr. McKnight served as an infantry chaplain in the U.S. Army, deploying on Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom in 2001. He holds a BS in Criminal Justice from Bluefield College, and a M.Div. and PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His primary field of study for the Ph.D. was in evangelism, with additional studies in missions and church history. He has also co-founded Carolina Family Planning Centers and founded Twin Vision Consultants, a church consultation team that helps congregations become healthy and growing churches. He has also served as a disaster relief chaplain in multiple settings in recent years, including in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake and Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.