Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22
Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany, February 5, 2023
Fifth in a Pastoral Series on Practicing Baptist Principles Dennis W. Foust, PhD, Senior Minister
Today, I offer you a sermon on a subject which, sadly, is seldom addressed in pulpits across this nation. This subject is always important and has become increasingly relevant in recent years.
Please silence your political listening devices as you hear this message. This is not a Republican, Democratic or Independent statement. This is a sermon about Religious Freedom as we apply a teaching of Jesus on the relationship between Church and State in this 21st century. When Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s,” he was being revolutionary –even heretical. In Jesus’ day, those words alone were enough to get him killed. The Pharisees and government officials plotted and connived to manipulate people by using religion.
Pharisees of our modern time are also conniving to manipulate sincere but naïve religious folks and are ready to crucify anyone who separates Church and State. Today’s Pharisees are Christian Nationalists.
For each of our 100 years, St. John’s has stood against the evils of Christian Nationalism.
Because we practice Soul Freedom for every person, we value religious freedom for every person.
By practicing Religious Freedom for all people, we champion the Separation of Church and State.
This idea has been proclaimed by Baptists for more than 400 years.
Although we gather at the corner of Hawthorne at Fifth, we have always ministered from the Corner of State Street and Church Avenue where many tragic crashes take place with casualties.
In the year 1611, the same year the King James Bible was produced, one of the founders of Baptists, Thomas Helwys, wrote these words to the King of England: “The King is a mortal man, and not God; therefore, hath no power over ye immortal souls of his subjects…” Helwys was a wealthy and well-educated person of influence in England. In 1612. Helwys was invited to present his proposal for Religious Freedom to King James in person. He asked King James to provide, ‘liberty of conscience for all citizens.’ On that day, Helwys was arrested and placed into Newgate Prison where he died a mysterious death; his body was never recovered. From our beginnings, Baptists have supported Religious Freedom for all people. We have opposed Christian Nationalism as an evil.
In this pulpit, on Sunday, November 18, 1951, Claude Broach preached a sermon entitled, “Sweet Land of Liberty.” In that sermon, more than 70 years ago, he warned against the presidential appointment of an ambassador to The Vatican. He expressed concern that it violated the initial clause in the first amendment to the constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Dr. Broach was careful to state that he was not attacking the Roman Catholic church as a way of faith. He wanted Roman Catholics to enjoy the same Religious Freedom he enjoyed; but not more by placing pressure on elected officials as a means of gaining votes. He concluded that sermon with these words: “But, according to the principles laid down in the Constitution of the United States, for which principles our Baptist forefathers, along with others, suffered ridicule, persecution, imprisonment, and death, this appointment is wrong.” He then encouraged the congregation to write their Senators to oppose this, “vicious and subversive appointment which is destructive of the principles which have made America a ‘sweet land of liberty.’”
To the credit of Claude Broach, less than a decade later, he stood against some other pastors in North Carolina who were putting out fake news about Roman Catholics. Our own Dr. Steve Harmon records
how Claude took tremendous ridicule for his stance as some called him a traitor and others demanded he resign as pastor of St. John’s. Less than 15 years after that 1951 sermon, Claude was one of a few Baptists invited to participate in Vatican City with Roman Catholic leaders during the ecumenical conversations regarding Vatican Two. He truly did invest in Building A Better World seeking Religious Freedom for all people while opposing threats of Christian Nationalism.
Claude Broach knew the historical story of a Baptist pastor in Virginia named John Leland.
Leland was a friend of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Rev. Leland was popular in Virginia and had more votes of support than Madison. However, he agreed to throw his support to Madison if Madison would agree to support religious liberty as an amendment to the constitution.
As a result, the words of a Baptist pastor were inserted as the first words of the first amendment. John Leland helped the founders of this nation understand how the control of State by any religious group or the control of religion by the State would limit all freedoms for all citizens. This truth is based upon what Jesus clarified by holding up a coin with the picture of an emperor. Baptists say ‘Yes’ to Jesus by practicing Soul Freedom which begets Church Freedom and Religious Freedom for all humans.
Rev. John Leland continued to preach on the importance of separation between church and state. He had no patience for people who used religion as an election issue. Leland understood that what is called Christian Nationalism today is evil. In a sermon he preached on July 4th, 1802, the Baptist pastor, John Leland, proclaimed these words: “Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion: it is spiritual tyranny – the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the marriage between church and state…”
In 1936, The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty was founded in Washington, DC, with offices across from The Supreme Court and two blocks from the United States Capitol. St. John’s was supportive of The BJC from the beginning. The current Executive Director is Amanda Tyler. I have invited Amanda to be our guest in The St. John’s Pulpit in 2024. Amanda has bravely stepped forward to establish Christians Against Christian Nationalism. A few years ago, early in the history of this group, I signed the statement supporting their message. Some of you are also listed among the tens of thousands of signatures. We oppose the basic message of Christian Nationalism which is that real Americans are Christians and real Christians hold a uniform set of beliefs which should set the course for America’s future. This is, of course, directly opposed to Baptist practice.
Beloved, I close this sermon by asking you to renew your commitment to protect religious freedom for all persons by working against Christian Nationalism. Practice religious freedom as you minister from The Corner of State Street and Church Avenue on Hawthorne @ Fifth.
Because you value your religious freedom so much, value religious freedom for every person.
When religious freedom is denied to one, it will soon be denied to all.
In the words of Baptist pastor, George Truett, on the steps of the United States Capitol, in 1920:
Let Caesar’s dues be paid
To Caesar and his throne;
But consciences and souls were made
To be the Lord’s alone.
Amen and AMEN. May it be so!