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Religious Liberty? Which Version Are We Referring To?

by Kerry Cheesman, Columbus Baptist Church, Columbus, OH

I am writing this on the birthday of Thomas Jefferson (April 13). I didn’t know that until I heard it on the radio this morning, but I think it’s significant because Jefferson was the author of the concept of ‘religious liberty’ in this country, and the first (as far as I know) to write about the separation of church and state. These are core principles to us Baptists, and to Christians in general throughout this country. So let me backtrack just a bit to where I started writing.

I grew up during the days of civil rights struggles across the country. My junior high school and high school were frequently pointed out nationally as models of a positive, integrated society. No, they weren’t perfect, but we never had issues between Hispanics, blacks, and whites in any significant way. In my home church we were taught that the Biblical message (as a whole) and Jesus’ ministry and words (in particular) left us as Christians with no options but to treat ALL of God’s children as equals. No exceptions, no “what ifs.” God created us all, and in God’s image, which includes all shades and sizes and brain types. Not just a few.

I also remember from those times being incredibly repulsed by what the KKK was doing (in the name of Christianity) and the John Birch Society, to name a couple. I remember watching with awe and disgust the news coverage of the treatment and protests against Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement… What I particularly couldn’t understand was the idea of discriminating against fellow humans made in the image of God. My pastor couldn’t explain why so-called Christians could do such a thing, and neither could my parents. It was unthinkable to everyone I knew.

Fast forward a few years (OK – a lot of years) and our country has become more diverse (racially, ethnically, economically). For the past few years we have been hearing more and more cries from the so-called evangelical Christian community about “religious liberty” – that thing that Thomas Jefferson promoted. On the surface it sounds Christian – in fact, very Baptist. On the surface the claim is that no one should force you or me to do something that is against our deeply held religious values (hopefully biblical values). Got it—and I agree. But what happens when my religious values do not align with the religious values of others in my community? Or the values of the people in general? What happens when my rights impinge on the rights of other religious people?

Over the past few months that is what we have seen happening in a number of states across the country. South Dakota, North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi have all attempted to pass “religious liberty” laws that allow Christians to legally discriminate against other[s] who do not believe the (narrow) way they do. I don’t think that’s what Jefferson had in mind, or any of the founding fathers for that matter. The press, fellow citizens, corporations, and even pastors have been quick to point out that these laws are not really about religious liberty at all, but rather about lawful discrimination against a class of citizens in our society that some do not like – many of whom, by the way, are fellow Christians.

The “bathroom bill” in North Carolina is perhaps the most egregious attempt to my way of thinking, because it not only discriminates openly but it also ignores science, something that the evangelical community likes to do and something I have rallied against in the church for many years. The supporters of the bill argue that transgendered individuals have no biological basis for their claim, something that cannot be supported scientifically. They also claim that there are only two genders (male and female), while contemporary science sheds serious doubts on that idea. They further make no attempt to understand the number of individuals born with ambiguous genitalia or genetic anomalies that make gender assignment at birth (the basis for deciding which bathroom an individual can use) a crapshoot that often turns out to be wrong.

I’m not holding my breath, but I do really hope that sometime before my life is over I will see the day when ALL of God’s children in this country will walk hand in hand, loving each other the way God intended, recognizing that God creates in all shades and sizes and characteristics, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently pointed out. And maybe, just maybe, we as Christians will stop using our own conjectures of what Jesus meant and simply love other[s] as he commanded!

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