Government should leave religion alone, Baptist leader insists

The rights of conscience take precedence over the demands of government authority, says Brent Walker.

By Ken Camp

Government should let religion “flourish or flounder on its own,” not promote it or prohibit liberty of conscience, a religious freedom advocate told a chapel assembly at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

In spite of their diversity and deep disagreements on other issues, a historically grounded, biblically based commitment to religious liberty for all people has united Baptists for four centuries, said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“We have taken seriously the liberty for which Jesus himself broke the yoke of slavery and set us free. This was our birthright in the 17th century, our rallying cry today and, I pray, our legacy four centuries from now,” he said.

WalkerWalker spoke in Truett Seminary’s chapel in conjunction with the Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State.

Walker highlighted heroes of religious liberty, from Thomas Helwys, who sent a declaration on liberty of conscience to King James and subsequently was sentenced for life to Newgate Prison; to Roger Williams, who established Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters and founded the first Baptist church in North America; to John Leland, who helped convince James Madison to include a religious freedom guarantee in the Bill of Rights; to J.M. Dawson, who persuaded the United Nations general assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; to George W. Truett, who proclaimed religious liberty to a crowd of 10,000 from the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

But while history demonstrates Baptists’ key role in advancing religious liberty, their commitment to the principle finds its roots in the Bible and its teaching that God created humankind with free will, he insisted.

“Our understanding of religious liberty involves no less than the freedom to worship God and to follow Jesus without efforts by government to advance or inhibit religion — someone else’s or our own,” Walker said.

Baptists have drawn inspiration from the example of the apostles, who were arrested for preaching the gospel of Christ, he noted.

“The rights of conscience take precedence over the demands of government authority,” he said.

However, Baptists likewise have recognized the limits of freedom, particularly responsibility to others and duty to the government, Walker added.

“Our freedom in Christ can never be separated from — and must always be limited by — the responsibility that we have to one another. Freedom and responsibility must always be held in tension. They really are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

While Baptists have championed a wall of separation between church and state, they must recognize the wall is not impenetrable, Walker said.

“Sometimes, it looks more like a chain-link fence,” he said.

No absolutes

First Amendment freedoms “are not absolute,” he said, pointing out religion cannot be exercised in a way that harms others, free speech does not include inciting riots or falsely defaming someone, and the right to assemble is subject to reasonable restrictions on time, place and manner.

“And — shall we say it — more than a year after that terrible day in Sandy Hook, Conn., and a half-dozen times since then, all of this goes for the Second Amendment, too,” he added.

The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom makes sure government “maintains a healthy distance from religion,” Walker said.

“These twin pillars of our constitutional architecture — no establishment and free exercise [of religion] — require that government neither help nor hurt religion,” he said. “Rather, government must be neutral toward religion, turning it loose to flourish or flounder on its own.

“In other words, government should accommodate religion without advancing it, protect religion without promoting it, lift burdens on exercise of religion without extending religion a benefit.”

Practically speaking, he observed, that demands balance — support for voluntary student-initiated prayer and opposition to prayers led by representatives of the state, support for tax exemptions for nonprofit religious organizations but opposition to vouchers for religious schools, and support for church compliance with reasonable building and safety codes but opposition to attempts by zoning authorities to micromanage church ministries.

“In short, every establishment clause ‘no’ we utter to keep government from promoting religion should be accompanied by a free exercise ‘yes’ to ensure the rights of citizens to practice religion in accordance with the dictates of conscience. … The best thing government can do for religion is simply to leave it alone,” Walker said.