Opening Remarks of Dr. William Weinrich
Fort Wayne Rally for Religious Freedom
6 October 2012
We are here because we have reason to think that our common, fundamental right to the exercise of our religious convictions is under threat by a government, reinforced by a secular culture, which no longer understands or respects the importance of conscience for a free society. It is crucial for us and for our nation to come to terms once again with ideas and notions that founded our nation and were enshrined in its founding documents. For what lies at the base of our national identity is not explicit law or any human power but an idea, perhaps self-evident to our founding fathers but no longer self-evident to our own times, that man is created free by a sovereign God and so created is to exercise his freedom without restraint but willingly.
Ideas must be re-thought and re-appropriated if they are to remain living and formative ideas. John Adams, our second president, forewarned us of the consequences should the people for whom the Constitution was framed cease to be a people governed from the inside by the ideas and notions therein expressed. He said: “We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other. ”
George Mason, the architect of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was an antecedent document of the Constitution, began the Declaration with these words: “That all men are born equally free and independent.” He then continued, “All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate.” Interestingly, James Madison was not happy with this wording. The language of “fullest toleration” was insufficient to ground adequately the notion that religious liberty was an inherent personal right rather than a mere limit upon the state. Religious liberty was not merely to be tolerated by the state to some fullest extent. Religious liberty was the inherent right of man, endowed upon him by his Creator, and as such a right which precedes and is more fundamental than any human arrangement or any earthly power. Governments are, therefore, legitimate and exercise their authority with proper limits only when they protect such rights and guard and defend such rights against any and all encroachments against it. James Madison, therefore, advanced an amendment to the Declaration establishing absolute religious freedom. The result of the discussion was that Mason’s “fullest toleration in the exercise of religion” was amended to the “free exercise of religion.”
Further, in 1785, in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, James Madison wrote:
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right…. 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…. [T]he equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us…
Madison’s intuition that religious freedom was of nature and not of human law echoes sentiments voiced long ago by the early Christian thinker, Tertullian: He spoke of the libertas religionis, “the freedom to be bound to one’s convictions. ” “It is the fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his convictions. ”
What we must emphasize today is the necessary implication of the notion of the free exercise of religious conscience and of the notion that religious liberty is fundamental and of nature. The implication to emphasize is this: The exercise of religious liberty cannot be confined merely to the private realm of the individual nor restricted only to the house of prayer. By its own inner dynamic, by the truth of religious conviction, faith must be lived and lived among our neighbors. Faith restricted from the public square is faith oppressed. Faith prohibited from its public and institutional expression is faith persecuted. Religious liberty necessarily includes a communitarian and institutional expression. Thus, religious liberty includes, necessarily, the right of each religion to establish its own rules, to exercise the power of self-organization and to disseminate its doctrines and to practice the habits of its convictions. The state, therefore, cannot legitimately restrict or restrain the free exercise of religious faith or require a person to act against conscience. Nor may the state do this by relegating religious communities only to the times and places of rites and ceremonies. If faith is to live, faith must act and so institutionalize itself so that faith in fact exists within and among the society of men. When the state demands that faith remain indoors, and when the state threatens to punish the public, institutional forms of faith, that state in fact is saying this: We will not tolerate the role of faith in our common life; we will not allow religious conviction to exist in its own integrity. That, my friends, make no mistake, is the language of tyranny.
Let us pray for that peace which comes from above:
O Father, who are in heaven, who by Your providence did raise up among the nations of men one nation founded upon the principle that in the society of human persons human freedom subsists in certain inalienable rights, among which is the liberty of religious conscience, we pray You,
Bless our nation, our states and towns with leaders endowed with wisdom and justice; may they by Your promptings so lead that we might live in peace and quietness and according to our conscience;
Open the eyes of the blind who would limit the freedom to exercise faith only to the individual or restrict it only to the houses where we call upon Your Name. May Your Name be hallowed, may Your will be done also there where they is human want, human suffering, human need, and in these places may we be the instruments of Your healing and of Your beneficence.
Grant in our day, O Lord, the freedom to be your instruments to humankind through schools, universities, hospitals, agencies of social service. Free us from the threat of evil and misguided power which would tempt us to compromise conscience for the safety of approval and the avoidance of persecution. So, as Jesus taught us, we pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. ”
As we are given time and opportunity, then, bless our religious schools and those who teach and those who learn in them; bless our religious-based hospitals and those who heal and those who are healed in them; bless our social agencies who assist the confused and the anxious, who attempt to place children in wholesome homes, who work to strengthen and to uphold holy marriages.
And, finally, O Lord, we acknowledge our fear as we enter into uncertain times. Should the struggle for the life of faith intensify, should we and our churches be placed before the awesome choice of steadfast faith or the terrible weakness of spiritual cowardliness, strengthen our resolve and make strong our courage that we in this nation and to this nation might make a confession worthy of Your gracious majesty and so place before the eyes of America the divine image of a humanity free because You have made us free.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.