Foundations of Religious Freedom

Sermon by K. Hollyn Hollman, General Counsel
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
April 27, 2008

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (New International Version)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. . . . You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:1; 13-14 (New International Version)

It is great to be with you.  I have long wanted to visit this church, having heard so many good things about you (“progressive, diverse, ecumenical”).  I have met folks from here and have sent friends to you, and I have enjoyed hearing about you from my husband’s sister—a good Methodist—who has made this her church home.  But I have a confession. My desire to be with you was never to fill the pulpit. Your welcoming of me, through your pastor’s kind invitation, was just too hard to resist when I met him at the New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta earlier this year.

Michael asked me to come and share a message, something from my heart, and I am always glad to be in churches that support the BJC’s work and to thank them for ensuring that there is a strong voice for religious liberty in the historic Baptist tradition.  Today, I am going to talk a bit about our work and why we as Baptists and Christians should take special pride in and responsibility for preserving our nation’s tradition of religious liberty for all.

I am not a preacher, though I am related to some fine preachers and hope that I will not fail them. My professional calling has been in the law, in a traditional private practice that later led to my position for the past 7 years as general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.  It is a job that certainly calls on my belief in a message well-worth proclaiming from the pulpit, a message that has been powerfully preached by Baptists from our beginning.  What is that message?

This message reminds us that religious liberty is a gift from God and deserves our protection. Religion should be protected from the intrusion of government if religious institutions are to thrive and serve their prophetic function as critic and conscience of the state.  We must uphold this legacy and should recognize that the religious freedom we enjoy in America has the fingerprints of Baptists on it. The colonial era Baptist evangelist John Leland advocated for religious freedom in the fight for disestablishment in Virginia, and is credited with influencing James Madison, the primary author of the First Amendment. As Leland wrote in his 1791 “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable”: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principle that he believes, worship according to his faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods, and let the government protect him in doing so.”  After all, our commitment to religious liberty is deeply connected to our belief in “soul freedom,” the basic right and responsibility of every person to respond to God directly, without the interference of clergy or the intervention of civil government.

These themes have a long and strong tradition in Baptist life and underlie the work of the BJC. The BJC is an education and advocacy organization begun more than 70 years ago by a collective group of Baptists, and currently supported by 15 different Baptist conventions and conferences, several of which you are affiliated with—including the American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists. We have a very broad constituency:  from liberal American Baptists, to the traditional African-American Baptist denominations, to some state conventions, including Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina, to conservative Seventh Day Baptists.  While we are not supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, you may find individuals and churches aligned with the SBC who agree with the principles we espouse (if not the work we do to carry out those principles).

Our program assignment is singular. We work on matters pertaining to the relationship between religion and the government. We do not work on all matters of policy about which Christians are concerned and should be involved. Of course, the churches that support us and the churches we attend are very interested and involved in matters of justice, peace, social services, care for the earth, and other policy concerns.  The BJC does not work on those matters, which of course explains how we can serve a wide variety of constituents, avoiding the worst of partisanship.  By our nature there will be divisions in Baptist life, and Baptists do disagree on many things, but a concern for religious freedom for all has been something that unites us.  Most would say that it is the distinctive Baptist contribution to the larger family of faith.

In Washington, we work in coalitions of religious and civil liberties groups from a broad range of perspectives. I know from experience that our commitment to religious freedom and “the separation of church and state” as the best means for protecting that freedom is one of the things that our Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and other religious and non-religious friends like best about us. We want to share the good news with you, but we also have a reputation for defending the rights of others to express their religious views and to reject ours.

The BJC’s mission is to continue that Baptist legacy: to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, championing the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. This means supporting the First Amendment as an essential restraint on government and a promise of the free exercise of religion, with minimal bureaucratic intrusion.

That means we advocate for religion, in all its various voices, to be free to flourish in the public square. Religion should thrive or fail on its own merits and the power of its message, not through the coercive power or sponsorship of government.  Authentic religion does not need that kind of help.  It is message powerful enough to hold us together for 70 years and build a reputation worthy of protection.

In my daily work, I am asked about the law of church-state relations, the status of the First Amendment, and the relationship between religion and government in various arenas such as courts and legislatures, as well as to speak on college campuses, and respond to the media and telephone calls with pastors, school principals, and others who have questions and need guidance on church-state law.

In recent weeks, I have been involved in  negotiating draft legislation about religion in the workplace, reviewing and analyzing federal cases, approving friend-of-the court briefs to file in litigation, and speaking to student groups that visit the nation’s capital. Primarily, I am asked legal questions about the relationship between church and state. For example:

Do we need greater protections for religion in the workplace?

What law restricts tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates? How  does it apply to churches?

When can the government post a religious message?

Why can Congress open with prayers but public schools cannot?

Can or should public universities set aside the use of buildings for the religious  needs of students, such as prayer or single sex gymnasium use?

What is the impact of the Bush administration’s “faith-based initiative”?

Is it legal to have a religious test for office?Each of these questions is important and while I may not always have the answer, I am grateful that Baptists fund an agency that has expertise in these areas, and that I am able to serve in it.

In some arenas, such as a congressional staff briefing, I speak to audiences as one of several panelists. Before I engage in a discussion on the specific topics (like any of those I mentioned), I tell them where I am coming from. This is especially important because the “Baptist” perspective we represent is not so well known. I’ve developed various ways of expressing why an organization that begins with the word “Baptist” is so bent on guarding against government-sponsored religion, so outraged that First Amendment protections are eroding, and so interested in protecting the rights of minority religious groups and the rights of nonbelievers.  Today I am flipping the order and emphasis.

So, here we go. Let’s look at the practical, historical and theological roots of our concerns.  The most concise way to explain the practical basis for why Baptists should support religious freedom is because it works. In her last First Amendment case before she retired from the bench, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted: “Voluntary religious belief and expression may be threatened when government takes the mantle of religion upon itself as when government directly interferes with private religious practices.”  Stop and think about that.  We are quick to see governmental burdens that impact churches.  We should also quickly recognize that when government asserts religious authority, it harms us.

O’Connor summarized the Court’s interest in protecting against government sponsored religious displays, saying the goal is “to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society.” She stated: “By enforcing the [Religion] Clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. . .  Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”  This practical truth is hard to deny, and most people understand it.

The most concise way of explaining the historical basis (which is closely tied to theology) for the strong Baptist support for religious freedom is to tell the story of  Roger Williams.

It was Baptist Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in North America, who first helped many understand “soul freedom.”  As others have described it, “soul freedom” is a traditional Baptist belief that each of us must make up our own mind about religious questions and is accountable to God.  Though we are nurtured by family and church, we come to God one at a time, personally and individually.  After being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams established Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom, recognizing the rights of those from other religious traditions, including the Native Americans. It was Williams that said it is necessary to separate the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world.”  This was more than 150 years before Thomas Jefferson made the phrase “separation of church and state” a famous shorthand for the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses.

The simplest theological basis for our commitment to religious freedom for all is a belief that we are created in God’s image and an understanding that we are created with a free will to accept or reject religion. When we advocate for religious freedom, we respect God’s creation. Even in Washington, and in front of a secular audience, people understand that. If God does not force His will upon us, does not coerce us, the least we can do is not let the U.S. Congress do it.

But today I am not in Washington, and I am glad to have this opportunity to expand upon the theological basis for a principled protection of religious freedom for all.

Genesis teaches us that freedom starts with God and that we were made to have a relationship with God. For that relationship to be genuine, it must be voluntary, entered into freely, and based on love, not in any way compelled or based on fear. Each of us is competent to respond to God as our conscience dictates, unimpeded and uncoerced by either civil or church authorities. When we advocate that religion should provide a strong, independent moral voice in our society, unconnected to government, we are acting in accord with our understanding of God and humanity.

In a sermon on religious liberty, Rev. Gardner Taylor, a prominent Baptist preacher from Brooklyn, New York (now living in North Carolina), noted something else about what we learn from Genesis. He said “The central lure in the Eden account of our human beginning is the temptation to exceed our humanity and to be as gods. Amid the luscious fruit and the endless springtime, a slimy presence strikes at the most vulnerable element in the human makeup: ‘ye shall be as gods’.”  Taylor goes on to remind us “We mortals are created a little lower than God, a lofty status, but in our attitudes and actions we tend to forget the ‘little lower’ and seek glory that cannot be forcibly seized—the status and prerogatives of very God.”  We are created with freedom to be in relationship with God, but none of us are created as gods.

It must have been that Biblical truth that inspired the pioneers of the early Baptist movement, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, to demand freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.  They experienced firsthand the dangers of combining religious zeal with the coercive power of the state, and they suffered terribly under a King that sought to force religious uniformity.  In 1612, Thomas Helwys wrote a seminal treatise on religious freedom called “A Short Declaration of the Mystery on Iniquity.”  In a note accompanying his treatise that he sent to King James I, Helwys wrote, “the King is a mortal man and not God and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.”

Thus it was from the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis and the very beginning of the Baptist tradition that freedom has been an essential theme of living a life of faith.

The theme of freedom continues in the New Testament in many places and in many ways. The verses I rely on today come from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Writing to a congregation that is fighting among themselves over the extent to which they are required to follow aspects of Jewish law, Paul warns against legalism and exclusion. He says in chapter 5, verse 1: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free; don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Of course, that brings up the question of freedom for what? And, that is an enduring question, one to inspire a lifetime of sermons and deserving of our best efforts as we seek to live out the life God intends for us. As freedom-loving Baptists, we look to the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, as the key to discerning God’s will for us.  We have no creed but the Bible, and are thus free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture according to the dictates of our conscience.  Our focus on the Bible, as interpreted by individuals, within the Christian community and with the help of scholarly inquiry, has created diversity and conflict, but has also left our central focus on the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.”

Certainly it is not that our freedom is unlimited, for us to do whatever we want. We are to put our freedom to good use.  Paul continues in the fifth chapter of Galatians, verses 13-14: “Brothers and Sisters, do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love, become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our freedom in Christ can never be separated from—and must always be limited by—the responsibility that we have to one another. Freedom and responsibility, liberty and accountability must always be held in tension; they are two sides of the same coin.
We are not a bunch of lone individualists who happen to get together once a week to worship God in the same place. We are a community, responsible not only for ourselves but for one another, too, united by the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.”

It is a scary concept–this freedom God gives us. And I understand why some, like those to whom Paul was speaking, are willing to trade their freedom for legalistic rules. The freedom God gives us and the responsibility that comes along with it produces anxiety.  We are always having to choose what is right and wrong and what it means to serve one another in love. Yet, that is exactly what we are called to do, and indeed what we are made to do.
As we go from here, may we continue to accept our calling to be free and responsible and to love and serve one another.  “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Thanks be to God!


Gaustad, Edwin S.  Roger Williams.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) (Justice O’Connor, concurring).

Pinson, William M. Jr.  Baptists and Religious Liberty: The Freedom Road.  Dallas: BaptistWay Press, 2007.

Shurden, Walter B.  The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.  Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Walker, J. Brent.  Religious Liberty and Church-State Separation.  Brentwood, TN: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2003.

Walker, J. Brent, ed.  The Trophy of Baptists: Words to Celebrate Religious Liberty.  Macon, GA:  Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2003.