One of the many things I treasure about this country is our right to debate, discuss and discern what the founders of this great nation meant by “inalienable rights.” As we approach Christmas, stories of city officials stripping religion from holiday displays or schools axing “Silent Night” from elementary programs have once again spiked. The Founding Fathers did not intend our laws and Constitution to restrict, prevent or condemn our right to exercise our faith. They sought to protect it.
A few years ago, while on a trip to Romania, I visited a small Baptist church in the rural town of Timisoara. As I waited in the back of the church with the pastor, I noticed the photos of pastors hanging on the wall and asked him if Christian services were allowed under the country’s former communist regime. “Oh, yes,” he assured me, “we could worship as long as it stayed within the four walls of the church. If we went outside to tell what we learned, we were persecuted.”
This frail woman had never been to our country, she didn’t know its laws, she was unaware of its politics, but there she was – crying and expressing thanks. She and the pastor understood something that many of us take for granted – America represents opportunity, values and the freedom to practice our faith outside of the four walls of a church.
Publicly practicing our religion is something we should not fear in this country, and yet I’ve read story after story about a toy drive shut down because the beneficiary was a Christian children’s charity or a school banning Christmas music at its “winter” program even though the Courts have upheld their inclusion in school productions. This year, the U.S. Air Force Academy made “So help me God” optional in its oath after threat of a lawsuit, and just last month Costco department stores were forced to apologize after their supplier labeled Bibles as fiction.
We’re not living in China or Iran or North Korea, and we do not face the same harsh punishment for practicing religion, but we must stand up for our faith and we need to be vocal about our concerns.
Our Founders’ commitment to freedom was built on fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and religion. These liberties were of such importance they were included in the First Amendment, not the fifth or sixth. It is understood that these rights are inherent and unalienable and do not come from a constitution or laws or any government, but from God.
When religious liberty was first debated on the House floor in the late 1700s, representatives expressed concern that the wording of the First Amendment could lead to the abolishment of religion altogether. James Madison, the principle author of the Bill of Rights, assured them that the First Amendment simply meant that Congress should not “establish a religion” or in effect endorse a particular denomination at the expense of others, or “enforce the legal observation of it by law.” That it represented freedom to believe and freely exercise our faith unencumbered by government mandate or restraint.
So, let us not forget during this Christmas season as we celebrate with our families, our cities, our schools and our places of worship that religion is not a silent practice confined to four walls, but an opportunity to live out our faith in the public square.