Religious Liberty – a Path to Coexistence

This is a short presentation that I gave at a local mosque, during a community “Peace Symposium.” Would love to read any comments you may have.

It is with joy and appreciation that I have come here today. Our hosts have shown me grace and acceptance and for that I am grateful. It is my hope that discussions like this will open the way to talk through our differences so we can be stronger in our faith and provide safety and security in our community.

History
As a baptist minister of 24 years, I have a historical perspective on faith in this country that is part of my Baptist religious heritage. In the days of the colonies, Baptists were persecuted and expelled from certain areas, because of their different faith practices.

Because of this history here and in other parts of the globe, Baptists have stood up for the right of others, especially those of minority religions, to practice their faith. Because we know from experience, if all are not free to worship God according to their conscience, in time, none will be free. Our own church’s Statement of Beliefs says: “We believe religious liberty, rooted in Scripture, is the inalienable right of all individuals to freedom of conscience with ultimate accountability to God…”. And again, “The State should guarantee religious liberty to all persons and groups regardless of their religious preferences, consistent with the common good.”

The Problem
There is a prevailing problem of mistrust in a society as religiously diverse as ours. The source of this lack of trust is three-fold. First, our religious differences become a wedge that drives us apart because we are influenced by misconceptions that we have picked up from a distance. We don’t take the time to listen and understand the other. We hear bits and pieces of others’ beliefs and many of those are distortions of what is truly believed. Secondly, the problem is that we act out of fear. We fear those who are different for many reasons. Sometimes, we are afraid of becoming the minority and loosing our place of power and influence. And sometimes, we are afraid of losing the cultural values and lifestyles that are part of our heritage. Thirdly, there are those of various religious traditions that have, from time to time, used their religious identity to control or subdue others. This has happened through physical force and political power.

All of this works to create and maintain a chasm that makes living in a peaceful community difficult. Instead of opening ourselves to those who are different and learning to work together as citizens, we hide behind our doors continuing to enforce the distorted views and misunderstandings we hold.

The Solutions
The answer to bridging the gap between people of distinctive religious beliefs is not to deny our differences. There is no solution in watering down our systems of belief to the lowest common denominator, which we call “faith.” Driving our unique doctrines and practices underground provides no lasting reconciliation or resolution. We must agree on another approach, whereby we can affirm the right of others to practice their faith and not be forced to affirm the validity or the veracity of their tenets or doctrines.

First, peacefulness in society is most assured when we insist on the liberty of people, whichever faith they hold, to practice their faith in private and public. This right is based on a truly American tenet, that is, faith is an issue of personal conscience. We must believe wholeheartedly, that a coerced faith is no faith at all.

We coerce others when we pass laws that promote or protect one faith over another. Through the political process we subtly communicate favor and thereby force others, through their citizenship, to materially support a religion to which they don’t adhere.

We also coerce others when we insist, with public pressure, that people dilute their religious distinctives and deny the doctrines to which they adhere. As a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, I am convinced that personal salvation is only through the atoning death of Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection. It is common to feel uncomfortable proclaiming this doctrine of exclusivity, because there is a growing movement that says, to declare such a thing creates division. Our unity as citizens won’t come from denying someone’s right to make such statements. But our unity as citizens will become most evident when we all insist on that right.

Second, each of us must be secure in the tenets of our own faith. When we are secure in what we believe, we will not need to be afraid of the faith of others. Fear makes us react to our differences negatively and unproductively. Security and confidence moves us to listen, understand and interpret for ourselves the truth of the others’ claims. I encourage you to know your faith. And learn about the faith of those around you.

Third, each of us and our religious communities must strive to not needlessly offend the other. There are times when we can insist on our rights and be legally correct, but we may make a community spirit more difficult to achieve for our society as a whole. In those times, we must assess, with love and compassion, the necessity of our action. If there is a solution which does not deny the convictions of our faith, we should consider adjusting our actions. In other words, we must strive for the high road, which continually makes room for the other.

Fourth, where we share certain values, we can and should work together in civil or secular causes. There are times, when we must join hands, not as members of a faith community, but as citizens of our common community, both religious and secular, to create a safe and secure society. Because when a community is safe and secure, people will experience a freedom to exercise their faith from a footing of confidence and joy.

Conclusion.
I look forward to striving together in the Glen Ellyn community, to affirm the right of religious liberty for all. And as we unite on that core conviction, we will each be assured the ability to worship God the way our conscience dictates. And in that, keep this foundational right that acknowledges God’s right to rule and reign in the lives of men and women, and our right and duty to serve Him.

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