Historian Henry Steele Commager stated, “The Americans who framed our Constitution felt that without freedom of religion no other freedom counted.” Do you agree?
Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
The attitude of the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence may have more significance today than when it was written. Why? Well, look around you. We are surrounded by diversity. The world of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and many other faiths has settled into the smallest communities. Should their freedom to worship be treated with indifference or disdain?
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, “When we lose the right to be different we lose the privilege to be free.” Do you agree? What if someone wanted to exercise their freedom to change faiths? Should they have that right as well?
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations, states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.”
Pope John Paul II said, “Religious freedom constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognized as having the right even to change their religion, if their consciences so demands.”
Is this a freedom to cherish? Whether we exercise this freedom or not, the way we treat others regardless of their beliefs, is a testimony to our relationship with God. The parable of The Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37 gives us God’s view on what it means to be a true neighbor regardless of a person’s race, creed or color. Would you treat a stranger so kindly?
The best example of allowing people to exercise their freedom is set for us by God Himself at Matthew 5:44-48. Jesus said, “But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong.
“If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that? But you must always act like your Father in heaven.” — Contemporary English Version.
Because the Almighty chooses to treat everyone the same, regardless of their conduct or beliefs, we are given His superlative example of how and why we should treat others with respect. Do they have to believe the way we believe? They shouldn't. Do they have to live the way we live? Not at all. People have the God-given right to be different, to think differently and to worship in their own way.
If given time, perhaps their interest will be aroused by our Christ-like love and they will ask about our faith, and we can gladly share it. If they choose to listen and believe — fine. If not, fine. Isn’t that their choice? If they choose to change their beliefs that is also their choice.
Everyone from our next-door neighbor to famous celebrities are exercising their freedom to re-examine their beliefs and change faiths if they so desire. Allowing people the freedom to choose — to change their religion or not — and still love them, not only shows respect for the Constitution, but respect for God’s Word, which is called at James 1:25, “the perfect law that gives freedom.” — New International Version.
Should all people be treated with the highest respect and dignity even if we never see eye-to-eye on matters of faith? In the end, God is the judge of all. It is He who ultimately allows freedom of religion. Did Jesus try to force people to serve God or listen to His Word if they were not interested? No. Still, he was kind to people, regardless of their age, race, sex or faith. Is that the balance we seek?
While Jesus was quick to condemn falsehood and injustice, no matter who was behind it, he always welcomed change in the people he preached to and exercised patience in dealing with others. He promoted truth over religions, and looked to God’s truth to set people free.
Yet, he always respected their choice. Do we? Will we? Of all the freedoms we cherish — freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of expression — it is this freedom of religion that allows us the most. It is a gift from God who is the only One with the authority to take it away.
May all lovers of freedom, and the spirit of independence, never deny anyone their God-given right to decided for themselves what to believe or how to worship, if at all. For this is also what Independence Day is about.