Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mealtime Meditation on Madison

“So, I read James Madison’s first inaugural address today.” That was my offering to the family at dinner last week. That led to speculation about what exactly Dolley Madison saved when the British invaded Washington D.C. in 1814...well, that’s what the wife and children discussed. I contributed a few thoughts about Dolly Madison snack cakes. It was a productive discussion. The family figured out it was a portrait of George Washington. The snack company went out of business a few years ago.

The “Father of the Bill of Rights,” in that inauguration speech, didn’t say was three pages long (brevity, the best sort of politician’s speech). But the fourth president of the United States of America still managed to describe the foundational ideals that guided him, including religious liberty: “Assuring myself, that under every vicissitude, the determined spirit and united Councils of this nation, will be safeguards to its honor and its essential interests, I repair to the post assigned me, with no other discouragement, than what springs from own inadequacy to its high duties. If I do not sink under the weight of this deep conviction, it is because I find some support in a consciousness of the purposes, and a confidence in the principles which I bring with me into this arduous hold the Union of the States as the basis of their peace and happiness; to support the Constitution, which is the cement of the Union, as well in its limitations as in its authorities; to respect the rights and authorities reserved to the States and to the people, as equally incorporated with, and essential to the success of, the general system; to avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience, or the functions of religion so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction...the source to which I look for the aids which alone can supply my deficiencies, is in the well tried intelligence and virtue of my fellow Citizens, and in the Councils of those representing them, in the other Departments associated in the care of the national interests. In these my confidence will, under every difficulty be best placed; next to that which we have all been encouraged to feel in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future” (March 4, 1809).

Prior to the ratification of the Bill of Rights, then-U.S. Representative (Virginia) Madison wrote against taxation of Virginians in support of religious congregations. The tax he opposed was mandatory, even though the citizens could designate which church was supported by the monies. After seeing the persecution of Baptists in Virginia by the established church (Anglican), Madison remained consistently opposed to any civil involvement in religion, be it supposedly positive (financial support of the church) or negative (government oppression of particular religions). “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe...we maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance...if Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body...the preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants” (“Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” June 20, 1785).

The fruit of this conviction became foundational to this nation a few years later: “The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution... Congress [this was back when the government and the people knew who made the laws in this nation] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances...” (“Bill of Rights,” ratified in 1791).

While we should all be thankful that religious liberty was a conviction of Madison’s, it certainly wasn’t new: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 21.2 – the Baptists eliminated the clause found in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 which called upon the civil magistrate to be involved in maintained order, unity, and discipline in the churches).

Neither is this conviction concerning religious liberty an old one: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, 17).

Religious liberty. May it continue in this nation and spread throughout the world in the generations to come. This is, I believe, the apostle Paul’s chief concern as he tells the church to pray.

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1,2a). Sometimes we stop there in our reading, interpreting Paul to mean that we pray for civil leaders either for their own sake or for the good of the nation. What the apostle says afterwards should refine our understanding of his command to pray.

“ that [what follows is the reason for the command to pray] we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, Who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (2:2b-7).

We pray for civil leaders so that we may lead a peaceful life, but even this is not the end of Paul’s reasoning (his concern isn’t for our comfort). This peaceful life is for the sake of the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to “all men.” The same God Who has ordained this in the current Gospel Age is the One Who calls preachers, missionaries (apostles), and teachers to proclaim Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:1-8 is about religious liberty for the sake of missions/evangelism.

The apostle closes out this section by returning to his original command in a tidy book-end: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (2:8).

Religious liberty. We pray for it and work for it, not primarily for our own personal freedom, but for the sake of the spread of the Gospel to those who have yet to hear it proclaimed. Our primary motivator for advocating religious liberty is the desire of “God our Savior” to have Christ, the “one mediator...between God and men” proclaimed everywhere.

This also means that if we aren’t focused on missions and evangelism, we are wasting this most rare and precious of freedoms.

Keep it at the forefront of your prayers, Church. Work hard at preserving it as your birthright and inheritance, U.S. citizens.

By the way...after telling my kids about religious liberty, they tried to discuss the War of 1812 and I tried to tell them about snack cakes. Seriously. Someone's got to be the adult.

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