(Image from Franklin Graham: Decision America Tour 2016)
by Dr. John Yarbrough
CLEVELAND, Ga.,– And they say unto Him, Caesar’s. Then saith He unto them,” Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 KJV)
Religious Freedom is one of America’s most cherished principles. The freedom for people of faith to exercise their faith in the public arena without fear of governmental interference or retaliation was a banner carried by our Baptist forefathers in America. In a message to the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, July of 1939, our University’s namesake, Dr. George W. Truett spoke of the Baptist struggle for religious liberty:
“On and on our Baptist forbearers waged their unyielding battle for religious liberty. They dared to be odd, to stand alone, to refuse to conform, though it cost them suffering and even life itself. They pleaded and suffered and kept on with their protests and remonstrances and memorials until, thank God, forever.”
They won in these United States, and written into our country’s Constitution, church and state must be in this land forever separate and free. The impartial historian will ever agree with Mr. Bancroft, our American historian, when he says, “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind was from the first trophy of the Baptists.” Such historians will also agree with the noble champion of human rights, John Locke, who said, “The Baptists from the first were the proponents of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.” And again, will he agree with the eminent Judge Storey, long a member of our nation’s Supreme Court, when he says, “In the code of laws established by the Baptists of Rhode Island, we read for the first time since Christianity ascended the throne of the Caesars, the declaration that conscience should be free; and that men should not be punished for worshiping God in the way they were persuaded that He requires.”
The Baptist contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty.”
Because of the conviction and stand of our forefathers, the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”
The need to stand for the protection of our religious liberty continues to our generation. A ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1990 threatened religious liberty by lowering the high wall of scrutiny that had historically been in place before the government could interfere with the free exercise of one’s religious beliefs. The United States Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not binding on individual states.
Since the 1997 ruling, more than 30 states have protected the religious freedom rights of their citizens by passing laws or by judicial ruling. Georgia is not one of those states. Every state contiguous to Georgia has protected their citizen’s religious freedom rights.
The 2016 session of the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill that would have afforded some protection for people of faith in Georgia. The governor vetoed the bill. Thus, the struggle continues in Georgia.
We stand in the tradition of our Baptist forefathers, one of our University’s namesakes, and the cherished principle that our rights do not emanate from government, but from God. Our government has been given the responsibility to protect our God-given rights.
The struggle will remain in Georgia until we see our rights protected. At Truett McConnell University, our Ray Newman Ethics and Religious Liberty Lecture Series will continue to focus our campus on the issues of the day. We will strive to inform and mobilize others as the cultural war against people of faith intensifies.
Dr. Yarbrough is the Director of Alumni Relations & Public Policy and TMU Associate Professor of Christian StudiesReturn to News Archive