CLEVELAND, Ga. (BP)--An individual's right to religious expression is a "sacred zone" that no other man should breach, Richard Land said March 4 at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga.Addressing the chapel audience at the Georgia Baptist Convention-affiliated school, Land focused on the subject of religious liberty, past and present, which he called "Baptists' peculiar gift to the Reformation." "A man's relationship with his God is so holy that it is wrong for any man to coercively interfere with it," said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, adding that it doesn't matter if the authority is a king, a pope, or a bishop. Land defined religious liberty as "the freedom to worship as you please according to the dictates of your own conscience, working out your own relationship with God, without any coercive interference from the state, and no civil penalties for religious infractions." Land recounted Baptists' support of religious liberty, beginning in 1612, when Thomas Helwys wrote the first plea in the English language for religious freedom, "A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity."Roger Williams, a Puritan, preached against the restrictions on religious freedom in Massachusetts Bay, Land said. Nine of the original 13 states had tax-supported state churches, and those nine states persecuted Baptists, Land said.Land reminded those in chapel that in the 10 years before the American Revolution, "500 Baptist preachers were thrown into jail for disturbing the peace" because they were preaching without a license from the church authorities.Before the Constitution of the United States was ratified, many Baptists feared a new federal government would establish a national church that would harass them, he continued. However, the Baptist position of religious liberty gradually triumphed, Land said.John Leland, a Baptist whom Land described as the "Billy Graham of his time" because of his evangelistic efforts, met with James Madison and, as a messenger to the constitutional convention, "cut a political deal" with him. Land told how Leland agreed to support the passage of the Constitution and would encourage Baptists to do the same, as a condition of Madison agreeing to offer an amendment to the Constitution in the first Congress -- an amendment that would guarantee there would never be a "national government church." Madison was the author of what became the First Amendment. Regarding current matters of religious liberty, Land addressed confusion about the separation of church and state and what may or may not be done in today's society. He challenged the statement that "you can't legislate morality." "Laws against murder, laws against theft, laws against rape, laws against racism, and laws against abortion are the legislation of morality," Land said. He described the laws as attempts to "keep others from imposing their immorality on their victims." Land described laws against abortion as protection for the unborn child from the mother's immorality. "It is always a fatal imposition because the baby always dies," Land said. "The most dangerous place that an American has ever been is his or her mother's womb between conception and birth since 1973." Land compared the fight against abortion to the fight against slavery in the 19th century and stated that believers have the right to bring their religious beliefs into the public arena. He noted that Jesus called His followers to be "salt" and "light" in the culture."Stopping abortion is being salt," Land said, adding, "Salt is a preservative; it stops decay," referencing society's decadence. "Light penetrates the darkness." He said part of "being light" is sharing the message that every human life is precious and deserves respect. "We bring our convictions to bear on evil. That's our right. That's our responsibility. That's our obligation," Land said. "When you have the freedom to do so, you're held accountable when you don't."Christians can't use the First Amendment as an excuse not to become involved in civic affairs and those who oppose faith-based arguments in the public square can't use the amendment to restrict believers from speaking, he said. Noting there has been a lot of confusion on this topic in society, Land said much of it centers on erroneous teaching on the concept of the separation of church and state."All the restrictions in the First Amendment are on the government, not on people of faith," Land said. The "government can't get into the religion business," he continued, saying the government cannot interfere with citizens' right to express their faith.The rest of the world aspires to these protections, Land said, lamenting that many Americans take their freedoms for granted.In remarks to Baptist Press, Truett-McConnell President Emir Caner said the college is committed to emphasizing Baptist distinctives. He said it was this focus that prompted the invitation to Land to address, what Caner termed as perhaps the "most neglected doctrine in Baptist circles" -- religious liberty. He said attention to the topic on campus would encourage students to press for such liberty "in a day and a time of tolerance." Caner noted the college (truett.edu), which has as its motto, "Biblically Centered -- Distinctively Baptist," has established a World Mission Center and Creation Research Center "in hopes that the institution will stand firmly on the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture and will fulfill the Great Commission in its entirety."
Jill Waggoner is a staff member of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.