When the Constitution first made its appearance in Virginia, we, as a society, had unusual strugglings of mind, fearing that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured. Perhaps our jealousies were heightened by the usage we received in Virginia under regal government, when mobs, fines, bonds and prisons were our frequent repast. (The Writings of John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene. New York: Arno Press & the New York Times, 1969, p. 53).For early Baptists conscience was something sacred and inviolable. They refused to give anyone the liberty to judge another person's conscience -- not even the conscience of a Jew or a Turk (their name for a Muslim) or an atheist. Isaac Backus, pastor of the Middleborough Baptist Church and chair of Massachusetts Baptists' "Grievance Committee" during the time of the American Revolution, explained why Baptists opposed the union of church and state:
It implies an acknowledgement that the civil power has a right to set one religious sect up above another . . . [and it] emboldens people to judge the liberty of other men's consciences. (Isaac Backus on Church, State and Calvinism, ed. By William G. McGloughlin. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1968, p. 333.)Those early Baptists were successful in securing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The first amendment spells out their concern for liberty of conscience in the words, "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." Then their tribe grew, prospered, assumed positions of civic leadership and they forgot about their concern for liberty of conscience for everyone.
Yesterday the Baptist Governor of the state of Oklahoma lent his voice and the authority of his office to an exclusively fundamentalist evangelical day of prayer event at the State Capitol. Those who invited him to speak are loud and vocal advocates of Christian Nationalism. An ever increasing number of them are Dominionists and Christian Reconstructionists who believe that Christians should set up a theocracy and exercise dominion over every aspect of civic life. The message that all of them intend to convey is that the State of Oklahoma is a Christian state and that persons of other faiths and of no faith are unwelcome or, at best, second-class citizens.
Most of the Baptists in this state and around the country would applaud our Governor. I find his actions and those of the Baptists and other Christians who applaud him deplorable.
More conscientious and more commendable are the actions of the Oklahoma atheists who were at the state capitol yesterday. Theirs were the voices for equal liberty of conscience yesterday:
Damion Reinhardt of Edmond, a member of Oklahoma Atheists, said his organization opposed the prayer service because it was not inclusive of all people.Not only do Oklahoma atheists have a better grasp of the First Amendment than our Baptist Governor, they also seem to have a better understanding of prayer than most Baptists and evangelical Christians:
"This is not National Day of Prayer. This is Christian Day of Prayer," he said.
Members of an Oklahoma atheists group gathered across from the state Capitol service.The greatest irony is that Oklahoma atheists offer more evidence of Christ-like love and charity than many Baptists and evangelical Christians:
"Basically we wanted to come here to show that not everyone agrees with what's happening. It's a clear violation of separation of church and state. The idea is you don’t need the government to tell you when to pray and how to pray," said Nick Singer, president of Oklahoma Atheists.
Singer, of Oklahoma City, and the group of about eight people held signs and a banner that read, "The hands that help are better than the lips that pray." Leaders of the group said the banner referred to a food drive they held ThursdayLittle children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. -- 1 John 3:18