When you attend church this or any other Sunday, you are validating a noble experiment that has made these United States the most religiously diverse nation in the world.
You are neither compelled to attend a certain church, nor are you restricted from attending. The worship you engage in, the hymns you sing, the sermons you listen to are not regulated by the government. We are guaranteed by the First Amendment the freedom to worship as our conscience dictates. We have religious liberty. We have the separation of church and state.
However, for the past two decades this freedom has been under attack. On this weekend let us underscore our birthright of religious freedom as we celebrate the birth of our nation.
Secular forces are defending the First Amendment to the extent that they will go to jail for it; and Christians are, for the first time in their history, hearing their leaders calling for its destruction.
The strange and arresting feature of this controversy is that it is being introduced into our political life by those whose tradition is to fight and die for religious liberty.
When the shouting is over, those who have weakened this separation will be called upon to answer to history for their violation of this sacred trust.
The struggle between church and state is long and varied. It reaches back to the high moments of the Old Testament and continues through the New Testament. In the church history we see it also and on into this present day.
The Hebrew children were placed in the fiery furnace because the state imposed a system of belief upon them that they could not accept.
Daniel was placed in the lion's den because he refused to cease praying as the state had directed him to.
Other Old Testament writers specifically warned against reliance upon secular support. We note in Isaiah and in the Chronicles and in Jeremiah.
In the New Testament, the church/state struggle becomes more vivid. It was a coalition of church and state that crucified Jesus.
Rome and the infant Christian faith were constantly at odds, and John on the Isle of Patmos identifies the Roman State as the anti-Christ.
A great loss to both church and state came in 325 when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the religion of the Empire. The clear lesson here is that the church lost its prophetic voice as it became responsible for the establishment, and the state lost its conscience as the church and state became one. The church became powerful, wealthy, and totally secularized, formally and morally bound to the state whose secular aspirations it fully shared. The church becomes, in an arrangement like this, old and drab, dismal and discredited, as well as depressing and oppressive. History is replete with illustrations of this.
This happened in France in the 18th century, England and Germany in the 16th, Italy in the 19th, and Russia and Mexico in the 20th.
And now those who have benefited the most from religious freedom are trying to stampede the American voter and turn back the clock on the issue of separation of church and state in the 21st century. If this stampede is continued, history teaches us that in every situation where there has been a loss of religious liberty, the clerics oppressed the people and a strong anti-clerical reaction resulted. It's a stampede, and we must either head it off at the pass or we will have to clean up after it when it has gone by. At this season of the year, if enough people speak, if religious liberty can be highlighted effectively, the weight of public opinion will rise up and stop the stampede. History thunders loud to our day. Separation of church and state is best both for church and state. As nations go, we have done rather well at working out a plan for the relationship between church and state, and this is possible because we take both religion and government seriously.
At issue is religious liberty. In a nutshell, it is quite simply that people must be free to decide their attitude to God and must not be victimized for their opinions, however mistaken their opinions may be. Religious liberty guarantees each of us liberty to freely argue according to our own conscience above all other liberties.
Only truth that a person fully accepts is truth for that person, and no effort to force people to believe will change that. Christ sought to persuade people, never to compel them.
The clear lesson of history is that when church and state go to bed together, they do not make love. They do not produce offspring. The lesson of history is that one always rapes the other.
The pinnacle of church dominance of the state was in the period of time from 1077 to 1213. Note that in 1077, Pope Gregory VII met Henry IV of Germany in Conossa, Italy. For three days, Henry groveled in sackcloth and ashes in the snow outside the castle walls before the Pope would receive him and hear his confession.
John I of England in 1213 was humiliated by Pope Innocent III and acknowledged that his kingdom was only a fiefdom to Rome.
A recent lesson of history is encased in the tragic surrender of the German state to Adolph Hitler by the German church simply because Hitler neither smoked nor drank. This will always haunt us.
The church/state scene was relatively quiet for two decades. After reviewing my files on the subject, I concluded that after the election of John Kennedy there was not much said about it in the national life. Now this issue has reappeared, buttoning the collar in front, rather than behind.
The group has learned well from the liberal churchmen of the '60s. Voter registration, civil disobedience, and pressure on sensitive emotional issues - it has augmented these lessons with its own innate talent for organization. Couple this with zeal and a deep desire to save America, and we have a serious force that cannot be casually dismissed.
There has been a slowly growing political activism by church people over the past two decades, beginning with the Supreme Court rulings on prayer in the public schools and later rulings on abortion, human rights, and finally the IRS tampering with tax-exempt status of church schools. Add to this a gnawing feeling that something has changed in America, that we are no longer a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post society. We are no longer "apple pie and Chevrolet, sidewalks and shade trees." We are no longer the land of John Wayne and Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Robert Young, Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman.
We have now become the America of Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Tom Cruise, Britney Spears and Bill Clinton.
Our values are shaped by the media, with the TV talk show becoming the new American Sunday School. "Do your own thing" and "if it feels good, it can't be bad" are the major lessons being taught.
During the '60s we freed ourselves from excessive ethical and cultural structure and into that vacuum has marched a new generation, not comfortable living existentially. They are now opting for a more totalitarian structure than any they have surrendered. In brief, we are ripe for totalitarianism. We observe every phone booth, hoping to spot the Superman who will deliver us from the oppressive potpourri of "do your own thing."
Between the revolution and hostage-taking in Iran, I noted an article in the New York Times, which observed that the revolution was a religious matter. Basically, it was a retreat from the confusion of the secularism of the 20th century that had been created by the Shah's reign. The desire for simpler times and a clearer morality and a stability provoked the people to reject the government that produced secularization. While this may be an over-simplification, I think there is a parallel here in our own rise of the new religious political right. Perhaps we are experiencing the same thing. Rapid secularization and technological advances have produced complex problems with no clear standards for dealing with them. Look at how the internet has been used for internet porn and solicitation. Some religious leaders have been seduced into being handmaidens in the revolution to return to a more simple day. God's people have been offered the kingdoms of this world, which the new politics cannot give.
We are quickly sacrificing our spiritual birthright for the pottage of political influence.
One of the real significant flaws in this activity is that the new evangelical right has elevated issues to the level of doctrine, and their litany of issues has become a creedal test. What you believe about abortion, prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments in courthouses has now become the litmus test for doctrinal purity. It must be reasserted clearly that issues rise and fall, they come and go, but the gospel is forever. Issues such as Vietnam, bombing of Cambodia, and draft evasion, which were supreme issues in the '60s, have now been moved off the scene. We must be careful never to hook our wagon to issues alone, but rather the church's wagon must be properly hooked to the gospel. "His kingdom is forever."
To the extent that Christians in general are becoming politically active and involved in the entire political process, we are on solid ground, politically and theologically. But we must not equate either political party with morality and Christianity exclusively. All political parties are equally sinful. Each party has positive and negative factors in it for the Christian. Politics is a process of deciding who has the power. That may not necessarily be evil, but neither is it necessarily Christian.
The church must resist the temptation to leave her first love - evangelism and missions. Jesus had the same temptation. Let us not forget the embarrassment of Billy Graham when he endorsed Richard Nixon, and the embarrassment of Norman Vincent Peale when he opposed John Kennedy's election.
The people of God must not be used for secular purposes. We must not submit to being tools in the hands of political power-brokers. This is a day for us to re-educate our people concerning the nature of religious liberty.
Let us remember that Jesus said in John's Gospel, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
And Matthew records him saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
Roger Williams, long ago, had an analogy called The Ship at Sea - A Liberty of Conscience. It's a good model for us to review:
There goes many a ship at sea with many hundred
souls in one ship whose weal and woe is common
And is a true picture of a commonwealth or human
combination of society.
It hath fallen out sometimes that both Papists and Protestants,
Jews and Turks
May be embarked in one ship
Upon which I suppose I affirm that all the liberty
of conscience that ever I pleaded for, turns upon
these two hinges:
That none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews or Turks
Be forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship,
Nor compelled from their own particular prayers or
worship, if they have any.
Remember, what God hath put asunder, let no man join together.
Now let us pray: Eternal God, let us not remove the historic landmarks that have contributed to making this a great nation. For we pray in the name of Christ our Lord, Amen.