Because God is love and desires a universe where love reigns, where love is the motive behind our behavior, behind our worship, because love is the motive behind His actions, there needs to be absolute freedom in worship and religion.
By Rob and Jacquie Randall
It’s been said that America is more of an idea than a physical location. If that is true, then the core “idea” associated with this country is liberty. And one of the central liberties we have in the United States is freedom of religion. Freedom to believe in or not believe in God as we see fit. When one surveys the history of religious freedom one sees how much of a modern phenomenon it is. Through most of European history, states were governed by autocrats who used religion as a tool to help secure and maintain their power. Each country had its own state religion and citizens were commanded to obey the dictates of that religion as part of their national allegiance. They expressed God’s love as an afterthought, if they expressed it at all.
The Protestant Reformation began to reintroduce people to God’s love, where for centuries the Church used kings’ and rulers’ power at its disposal to make people believe or not believe on pain of death. Since it had been considered the Church’s prerogative to control people’s consciences, the church/state coalition during the middle ages considered it acceptable to destroy people’s homes, jobs and families or even kill them for reading the Bible for themselves or believing something different from church-approved doctrine. They thought this was “righteous” because it stamped out “heresy” which could land non-believers in eternal torment in hell. People lived in fear – from the Church and from God – God’s love was not modeled by the nations where monarchs declared what you could believe or not believe.
Protestants officially broke from the Catholic Church but continued to practice intolerant religious systems like they had been entrenched in for centuries. Power corrupting. Some Reformers or their followers considered it “righteous” to persecute those who differed from their beliefs. For example, Calvin and Zwingli, prominent leaders in the Protestant Reformation, cruelly persecuted the Anabaptists, the former saying they were “baptizing” them by drowning them in rivers. The concept of a loving God nearly drowned with them.
Although the Reformation was a start toward religious freedom, and change was in the wind, many political and religious leaders felt that their power was threatened – they knew that if the people no longer thought they controlled the keys of heaven and hell they would lose their political power as a clamor arose for independence of conscience.
The Puritans ran from persecution in England. They left their houses, their goods, their means of livelihood and fled to Holland to be able to find a place to worship God according to their beliefs. Puritan, John Bunyan, wrote his allegorical classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, while imprisoned for 12 years by the Church of England because of his sermons.
Bunyan wrote, “He knows he at the end will life inherit, then fancies fly away, he’ll fear not what men say, he’ll labour night and day, to be a Pilgrim.”
Ellen White later wrote the following about the Puritans. “It was the desire for liberty of conscience that inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness” and sail to America, the “New World.” (Great Controversy p.292)
Shortly after arriving in the New World, the Puritans, who themselves had fled persecution, began to use force to impose their own form of religion. One of their leaders, John Winthrop, preached the sermon, “City on a Hill” where he described the mission of the pilgrims in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “light to the world.”
Winthrop’s vision of the “light to the world” extended to his government enforcing the first 4 commandments of the Ten Commandments including church attendance, keeping the Sabbath, not swearing, etc. These laws were mandatory and incurred serious penalties if violated – including flogging or cutting off offenders’ ears. (Roger Williams: Soul of America)
Within their utopia, the Pilgrims, blind to their own intolerance, felt it was “righteous” to use the state to force citizens to obey their religious dictates. They did not yet understand religious liberty. In retrospect, it is striking that those who sacrificed so much to flee religious persecution would impose their religious beliefs in their newly established colony. It would take years for them to understand that every soul is completely free to love or not love God, to believe or not believe, to see that every soul is free to choose.
The creation of the American soul came with Roger Williams and the founding of the Rhode Island colony – a grand experiment in the relationship between the state and its citizens. Providence, Rhode Island moved forward with a model unique from the other colonies where there was no prescribed religion. “Williams was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience.” (Bancroft, Part I, GC) Roger Williams said, “’The Public or magistrates may decide what is due from man to man; but when they attempt to prescribe a man’s duties to God, they are out of place, and there can be no safety.'” (Bancroft)
People could be citizens in good standing as well as leaders in Rhode Island regardless of whether they attended church or believed in God. In addition, Rhode Island treated Native Americans as equals and did not force them to convert to Christianity – a shocking concept at the time to the other colonies. “The fundamental principle of Roger Williams’ colony, was that, ‘Every man should have liberty to worship God according to the light of his own conscience.’ His little state, Rhode Island, became the asylum of the oppressed and it increased and prospered until its foundational principles – civil and religious liberty – became the cornerstones of the American Republic.” (Great Controversy, EGW)
When the United States eventually broke away from England, the Declaration of Independence declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These principles of come from God and not earthly leaders, undergird America’s greatness.
But what is the basis for religious freedom and separation of church and state?
Love, not force, is the foundation of freedom. Because God is love and only wants a universe where love reigns, where love is the motive behind our behavior, behind our worship, because love is the motive behind His actions, there needs to be absolute freedom in worship and religion.
God could have easily created a universe where He used force to make it impossible for humans to sin due to His use of force, or His “authority.” God could have created a universe of robots. However, in that kind of universe, true, deep, passionate love could not exist. God does not want us to just parrot back to Him what he says for us to say. No one in a love relationship likes that from their loved one. To God, Lover that He is, it would feel like compliance, obedience maybe, but no deep, casting crowns, soul-stirring, love and adoration from a heart free to choose or not choose.
And liberty is inherent in the principle of love. Love can only exist in an atmosphere of freedom. Love does not usually awaken or grow when it is dictated, forced, manipulated, or when one is penalized for not loving. Love must be won and not commanded. The gospel story is the story of God laying aside His power and position to draw near to us as common human beings. He became one of us. He had nothing outward like wealth or outward appearance to sway us in His direction. He walked and worked beside the human race as ordinary… as a man and wooed us with genuine care and understanding. He respected all, even the outcasts, the ones others put down and made fun of or bullied. He used no force. For the shamed of society and the noted sinners he saved his most awesome miracles. (Zachaeus, Mary Magdalene, the man let down through the roof, the man at Bethesda Pool) In the end He chose saving us, dying the second death Himself, the horror and heartbreak of Calvary. And with eternal cost to himself He, God, saved us. Only eternity will reveal it to us. He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all to me.” So instead of using commands, coercion, threats of force to believe, to do as He says, God displays His true heart and draws us to Him. This is the Biblical story and it lays the foundation for freedom of religion. God does not coerce the conscience and neither should we.
Rob Randall has a Doctorate in Ministry (D.Min) from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is a retired pastor having pastored churches in New York, Maryland, and California. He is also a real estate agent in Southern California. Jacquie Randall is in private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist.