The Fourth of July! This unique, and perhaps most popular, American holiday conjures up visions of fireworks, political speeches, baseball games and backyard barbecues.
This holiday provides an opportunity for Americans to express our patriotism, celebrate what is good about this country and redouble our efforts to fix what is not.
For example, whether one is Republican, Democrat or Independent, we should take pride in knowing an African-American will be nominated by a major American political party for the presidency only 45 years (to the day) after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall. We have made remarkable progress in race relations and civil rights, but we still have a lot to do to eradicate bigotry from our nation. Although we have provided a standard of living that is the envy of most of the world, we still have much to do to right the economy, fight poverty and improve health care.
As we observe the Fourth of July, it also is appropriate to express gratitude for our freedom, especially our religious liberty, which the Baptist Joint Committee works every day to defend and extend for all Americans.
First, we should pause to thank God. All freedom starts with God. The Bible teaches us in Genesis that the sovereign God of the universe created you and me in God’s image. This means we were made to have a relationship with God. For that relationship to be genuine, it must be voluntary, entered into freely and based on love, not in any way compelled or based on fear. It means each of us has free will and is competent to respond to God as our conscience dictates, unimpeded and uncoerced by earthly authorities. The Apostle Paul carries this theme forward in his letter to the Galatians when he writes that for freedom Christ has set us free; do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. Yes, religious liberty is a right—a natural, inalienable right—that we receive as a gift from God. Thanks be to God.
Second, it is appropriate to give thanks to our nation’s founders. They took the bold, radical step of separating church and state in civil society. They provided in Article VI of the Constitution that there would be no religious test or requirement for public office. One’s status in the civil community simply would not depend on the willingness to espouse any particular religion. These architects of the new nation decided the government would not be permitted, in the words of the First Amendment, to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Our founders protected our God-given freedom by barring government from meddling in religion or taking sides in religious disputes. As a result, and as a consequence of their foresight and wisdom, America is one of the most religious and most religiously diverse nations on the face of the earth. Despite our religious passion and pluralism, we have been able to avoid, for the most part, the religious conflicts and wars that have punctuated history and continue to plague much of the world today.
Yes, most of our founders were Christians of various ilk, but they were committed to ensuring religious liberty for all, not enshrining their own particular religious views in our founding documents. Thanks be to God for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other founders of this great nation.
Third, we should acknowledge our debt to our Baptist ancestors. Next year, Baptists will celebrate our 400th anniversary. For nearly four centuries, Baptists have fought for, and in some cases died, to protect religious liberty—not just for themselves, but for everyone else, as well. Roger Williams, the great apostle of religious liberty and founder of the first Baptist church in America, called it soul freedom, a God-infused liberty of conscience. And Baptists over the ensuing centuries have taken up the cause and fought to turn that heritage into a legacy for future generations.
I also think of many Texas Baptists who have advanced religious liberty, much to the benefit of Texans and all Americans. George W. Truett, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, comes immediately to mind. His storied 1920 speech on religious liberty from the steps of the U.S. Capitol has inspired generations of Baptists and members of Congress to stand up for religious liberty at all cost.
How about J.M. Dawson and James M. Dunn—the first and fourth executive directors of the Baptist Joint Committee—carrying forward Truett’s truisms and fighting for religious liberty, both here and abroad? And who can forget Phil Strickland, Texas’ Christian Life Commission director, who fought for social justice, the well-being of children and religious liberty for all of God’s children? That Texans enjoy heightened religious liberty protections—beyond what even the U.S. Constitution provides—is due to Phil’s indefatigable efforts. What a legacy he has left all of us. I’m sure other Texans deserve similar accolades. Maybe you can thank a few for me. Thanks be to God for our Baptist forbears and modern-day advocates for religious liberty.
This year as you celebrate our nation’s birth and enjoy this quintessential American holiday, pause to give gratitude to these whose efforts have made America a land of liberty and a place where religious freedom is cherished.
Brent Walker is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington.