Interfaith Day of Prayer and Reflection
Dr. Bruce Prescott
Executive Director, Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists
President, Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State
May 6, 2004
We are gathered today to celebrate our religious diversity. We have come to express our gratitude for a constitution that secures religious liberty and freedom of conscience for every citizen of this state and nation. While the religious convictions we hold are diverse and often contrary, we stand together united by a common commitment to preserving for all generations the religious liberty for everyone that has made our nation great.
We are thankful that our nation’s founding fathers had the wisdom to decree that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This American experiment -- separating church and state and requiring the government to be neutral in matters of religion -- has been good both for religion and for the government. All of us have benefited from the freedoms that the First Amendment secures for us.
Today, we intend to exercise our liberties and let freedom ring. It is a sound that should resonate in the heart of every Oklahoman and every American. Eighteen speakers will ring the bell of freedom today. They come from five or six distinct faith traditions and one comes from outside any faith tradition. Everyone will speak from the unique perspective of their own system of faith and belief. All have been asked to speak about the value of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
I am the first to ring the bell of freedom today. I speak from the Baptist tradition. Long before religious wars in Europe prompted the philosophers of the enlightenment to call for religious tolerance, Baptists were appealing for religious liberty. Unlike today, when Baptists represent a large percentage of the population, in those days Baptists were a small, persecuted minority faith. When Baptists were in the minority they did two things that many modern Baptists are forgetting to do. First, we took the Golden Rule seriously – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That is important because nearly every faith has a statement similar to the Golden Rule as part of their core convictions. It comprises the common ground on which people of divergent religious beliefs and convictions can live together in peace and unity – if they desire to do so. Unfortunately, not everyone desires to live in peace and harmony with people of different religious convictions. Second, more than any other group in their day, the early Baptists were consistent about wanting to see religious liberty for people of all faiths and of no faith.
Nearly 400 years ago, Thomas Helwys, the first pastor of the first Baptist church in England, gave his life for writing things like this:
Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.
Shortly after Helwys died in an English prison, Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America. Williams went on to start the first Baptist church in America, to found the colony of Rhode Island, and to secure the first charter in the history of the world that secured liberty of conscience for all citizens.
Despite all that, the Baptist struggle for religious liberty literally continued all the way to the revolutionary war. Baptists joined the War for Independence as part of their fight for liberty of conscience. When the war was over they refused to ratify the Constitution until the First Amendment was added to assure that church and state would be separate. After the constitution and the first amendment were adopted and while other Christians were denouncing it as a ‘Godless Constitution,’ John Leland, leader of the Virginia Baptists, publicly rejoiced that our constitution made it possible for “a Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian” to be eligible to serve in any post of the government.
It is in the spirit of those early Baptists that I am proud to stand here today with all these speakers from the rich diversity of faith and conviction that has flourished under the religious liberty that my spiritual forefathers fought so hard to secure. If they were here with me today, I am confident that they would gladly join me in saying, “Let freedom ring!”
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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