Happy Birthday America!
July 4th is traditionally celebrated as the “birthday” or beginning of America. July 4, 1776, was when the delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, drafted by (future President) Thomas Jefferson and approved by the Continental Congress two days earlier. But this was not the beginning of a peaceful new nation. Almost a decade of war would follow, until the Treaty of Paris was signed between Britain and the United States on September 3, 1783. This is important for us to remember because freedom does not come with a simple declaration. It requires sacrifice. It requires responsibility. That is no less true (more perhaps!) today than in the 18th century.
For Christians in America, there is an inherent tension. Christians realize that they are citizens of another county (Philippians 3:20), part of a community that is truly international (Revelation 7:9), and that our freedom is found in Jesus Christ rather than human governments (Galatians 5:1). At the same time, we should be thankful for God’s Providence that has placed us in this particular nation and for the freedoms that are established in our governing documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One specific blessing for the Church of Jesus Christ is the wisdom that led our Founding Fathers to pass the first ten amendments to the Constitution, often called the “Bill of Rights.” These amendments were drafted by (future President) James Madison and were designed to make explicit the freedoms retained by the people. It is essential to understand that the Bill of Rights did not “invent” rights, but rather acknowledged rights that already existed. They were written so that the new and future government would not violate the rights of the people.
The very first amendment made explicit the freedom of religion for Americans. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Unlike the belief of some modern scholarship, this amendment did not make America a secular state or prohibit any involvement in religion by governmental agencies; instead, it prohibited the government from picking and choosing which religion was legal or illegal, as had so often been the case in Europe. Another crucial aspect of the First Amendment is that it establishes the free exercise of religion, not worship. Many in our day want to restrict Christians’ exercise of their faith solely to worship. More and more, our government infringes on Christians’ faith in their everyday lives. Whereas in the past, First Amendment battles tended to focus on the Establishment Clause(“make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and governmental involvement in religion, now the battleground is the Free Exercise Clause (“prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).
So what does that mean for the Church of Jesus Christ? It means that we must be ready to argue persuasively for our Constitution freedom to exercise our faith in a broad way – beyond gathering for public worship (as important as that is). But that does not mean that we are freed from Biblical commands to submit to the authorities God has established (Romans 13:1) or to cause offense in things indifferent (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). The Apostle Paul makes this point clear when he writes: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Think about that this July 4th, as you celebrate the freedom you have both as an American and as a believer in Christ.