In America religious liberty came into existence when the Church and the State came to two important, indispensable conclusions. These principles are worth our time to remember because of the precarious position in which religious liberties find themselves in the United States today.
The Church (by which I mean various religious groups in the U.S.) concluded that God has not given us the job of coercing people to make an outward affirmation of our beliefs in opposition to their consciences. The government cannot make a Christian; it can only make hypocrites. Unless you can say no, your yes is meaningless. For too many dark and dreary years the Catholics of Spain, the Anglicans of England, and the Congregationalists of Massachusetts determined at the point of their swords to bring all men into conformity with their doctrines. Religious liberty only became possible when they realized that theirs was not the task of uprooting the tares, and before they had finally realized it, they had brutalized so much good wheat.
But there is a second conclusion that had to be reached: The State concluded that it had no army, no weapon, no dungeon, no instrument of torture, and no form of execution strong enough to break the conscience of a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Not that the State hadn’t tried. They drowned Anabaptists. They exhumed John Wycliffe’s body and burned him at the stake posthumously, since he had the bad manners to have died before they could kill him.
Consider the story of Anne Askew. Anne was an Evangelical in Henry VIII’s England. In 1546 she was arrested at the insistence of her husband. Her accusers thought this twenty-five-year-old would break under torture and recant her faith, so they put her to the rack. To the end of her ordeal she would not deny her Lord. Finally, they condemned her to burn at the stake. So long and so severely had they stretched her on the rack that her limbs were useless even to convey her to the place of her death. They had to strap her to a chair and carry the chair to the stake, where they kindled the flames and ended her life. Still, even to her death, she remained unwavering in her faith.
Eventually, after centuries of attempts in Europe, our American government realized that a faithful heart, though it be housed by even the most frail of human bodies, is a force stronger than all the devices of man. But that didn’t make the war go away.
Baptists were an integral part of this. The sufferings of John Bunyan, Obadiah Holmes, and others created stories that stirred the sympathies of the English and American peoples. Such people as Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland were heroes and instrumental figures in the fight for religious liberty. They made it clear that government was embarking upon a losing war with no good “end strategy” when it determined to force people to compromise their religious consciences.
Today the first realization remains solidly in force. The idea that any religious institution would seek to use the power of the state to compel adherents to attend, join, or give to their churches, mosques, synagogues, covens, or Kingdom Halls is not even on the radar screen. These are the days (bewildering to our forefathers!) in which even Roman Catholics make eloquent arguments for religious liberty.
What is in jeopardy is the second realization. There seems to be a plausible progressive metanarrative by which, eventually, a little behind everyone else, virtually all American Christians come around to their way of thinking. That’s why we are witnessing an assault on religious liberty today: Our opponents are certain that changing our minds is a simple matter of applying enough pressure.
They do not realize that in addition to the Church of Progressivism there remains in this country those who belong to the Church of the Martyrs. These are more resilient (or more stubborn—take your pick). No power on earth has ever yet been able to move these saints. We can forgive our fellow citizens for failing to recognize this. After all, it has been a long time since Anne Askew burned at the stake, and our present generation has no experience whatsoever with the idea that people would suffer the loss of everything for their faith and still not yield.
The present trajectory will not change until the state learns once again that it is powerless to coerce the conscience. The task of teaching this lesson to the state will fall once again into the hands of the churches. Facing that future is daunting, but I am encouraged to know that the Bride of Christ has never yet failed at this task in the end. Indeed, the process has always resulted not only in the conversion of the state to a position of, at the very least, religious toleration, but also in the conversion of teeming masses of wayward souls to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Bart Barber is the pastor First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas