What ‘Religious Freedom’ Used to Mean
At the turn of the 17th century, an English lawyer named Thomas Helwys had become part of a separatist congregation in Lincolnshire (it is to this congregation that many Baptists trace their roots). They were dissenters from the Church of England, established by King Henry VIII. In what is considered the first written call for religious freedom in the English language, Helwys wrote, “If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane laws made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”
Once upon a time, “religious freedom” was the cry of the oppressed minority when basic human rights were being denied them by their own government because of their religious beliefs. Today, in the United States, “religious freedom” is becoming the cry of the privileged and powerful concerning what they can rightfully deny someone else because of religious beliefs. It has been a radical shift, and it is an embarrassing travesty.
Religious freedom used to be about gaining the protection of the law, not putting oneself above the law. In the late 1700s, Baptist minister John Leland wrote, “Let every man speak freely without fear — maintain the principles that he believes — worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”