First Commandment/First Amendment

Good morning, Friends!

Today’s topic is a pretty controversial one. I think most of you will probably agree with what I have to say, but if you don’t agree with me – that’s OK.

This week is the 4th of July. Aside from all the picnics and fireworks and ball games, there’s a serious side to the holiday – remembering the rights we all enjoy in this country. The first rights that are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But that wasn’t enough for the leaders who built our new nation. In the Constitution, they listed rights – rights which belong to everyone, no matter who they are. Rights that aren’t earned by effort, or handed out by the majority. Rights which are basic and foundational to our society.

Doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, young or old, a newcomer to this country or if your family goes back for generations. These rights belong to you, and me, and everyone else. That’s the way this country is.

And a lot of that controversy in America over the last 240 years has centered around the relationship between politics and religion.

Politics and religion are two things which lots of people feel very strongly about – the only things which are closer to some peoples’ hearts are family and their favorite sports team.

But conflict between politics and religion has done tremendous damage over the years to our nation, to our communities and often to the church.

We were talking about this at Ministry and Counsel last month. Some people said that they stopped coming to Sunday School because they felt the discussion got too political. Friendships, built up over many years, were strained because the two subjects got mixed up.

So, this morning, I’d like to look at how this problem takes shape, and look at some ways we can be free as a people in what we believe and how we live.

I want to start, by reading one of the most famous passages in the Bible. It’s from the collection of laws which God gave to Moses, and to all of God’s people.

Moses sent for all the Israelites. Here is what he said to them: Israel, listen to me. Here are the rules and laws I’m announcing to you today. Learn them well. Be sure to obey them.

The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. He didn’t make it only with our people of long ago. He also made it with us. In fact, he made it with all of us who are alive here today.

The Lord spoke to you face to face. His voice came out of the fire on the mountain. At that time [Moses said] I stood between the Lord and you. I announced to you the Lord’s message. I did it because you were afraid of the fire. You didn’t go up the mountain.

The Lord said,

“I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of Egypt. That is the land where you were slaves.“Do not put any other gods in place of me.

“Do not make statues of gods that look like anything in the sky or on the earth or in the waters. Do not bow down to them or worship them.

I am the Lord your God. I want you to worship only me. I cause the sins of the parents to affect their children. I will cause the sins of those who hate me to affect even their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But for all time to come I show love to all those who love me and keep my commandments.

– Deuteronomy 5:1-11

There are different versions of these words in other parts of the Bible. But this is what we generally refer to as the First Commandment – “There is one God, and God comes first. Don’t worship anyone else. ”

I want to talk about the First Commandment, but first I want to read you something else. It’s not a religious document, but it’s the first and in some ways the most important addition which was made to the Constitution of our country.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

It goes on to protect the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble peaceably, and the right to petition the government for change or for justice. But freedom of religion comes first.

For a lot of people today, “freedom of religion” means the freedom to enforce their religious beliefs in public. The powder keg issues today tend to be things like prayer in the schools, or displays of the 10 Commandments in public buildings, or creation versus evolution in the public school curriculum.

I believe in prayer. I try to follow the Ten Commandments. I see the hand of God in every part of the world I turn. But I don’t believe the government should try to enforce any of these things that I believe on anyone else.

Christians are not the majority religion in America, and never have been. I know that roughly 70% of the population in America identify themselves as some kind of Christian, but that number has some problems built into it.

In America today, about 46% of Americans are Protestant, and 20% are Catholic. We don’t agree on a lot of things.

And Protestants break down into dozens of different groups who don’t agree, either. Only about 15% of Americans today identify themselves as “mainline Protestants” – Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and so on, all the way down to us humble Quakers.  That “70% Christian” number includes all kinds of people we hardly agree with at all – Christian Scientists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all kinds of fundamentalists.

And alongside of us, breathing the same air and paying taxes, there are millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and followers of traditional Native American religion. Plus about 20% of the population who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.

What’s my point?

America is not a unified religious nation, nor is it a unified Christian nation. Only about a third of the country attends religious services every week – and that includes Christians in that figure.

The First Amendment isn’t just about freedom of religion. I can pray any time or any place I want to. Nobody’s stopping me.

There are some limits. We don’t allow slavery in this country, or polygamy, even though those practices were common in Bible times. We don’t stone people to death for religious offenses. But religious freedom covers a wide variety of practices.

We can each pray in our own way, worship whenever we want, and interpret the Bible in whatever way seems best to us.

What’s almost as important as freedom of religion, is freedom from religion. The First Amendment says that the government can’t take sides, to favor one religious group over another.

Unlike a lot of other countries, we have no state-supported church. At the time of the revolution, there were “official churches” in several states, supported by taxes and with the minister paid by the government. We don’t do that any more.

Under our laws, there is no religious test for holding any public office. You can’t be excluded from any office because of your religion. That includes not just elected officials, but juries as well. You can’t cherry-pick a jury based on religious belief, and you aren’t excluded from jury duty because of your religion.

There is no religious test for voting, for citizenship, for owning property, or for any other right or legal benefit in our society.

You may not think that’s important, but Quakers paid the price for religious freedom. 350 years ago, it was illegal to be a Quaker in England and in several of the colonies. Quakers were put in prison by thousands, and over 400 Quakers died in prison. We were publicly whipped, our marriages were illegal. Our meetinghouses were seized, padlocked and even burned down. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston for no other crime than just being Quakers. That was the last straw for public opinion, and the king overturned the law of Massachusetts.

In this country, it’s not illegal to convert from one religion to another. In many parts of the world, that’s a capital offense. Many people still come to America to get away from oppressive religion in the countries where they were born. They believe in freedom from religion – from religious rule of the majority enforced by the government – even if some Americans have forgotten what that’s all about.

I don’t think the government can stop kids praying in school. That’s not the point. The point is that no school can force kids to pray. There are many fine Christian teachers and educational leaders in our public schools. It’s a calling, just like any other form of ministry. And Christian teachers deserve our support.

But school prayer feels very different if you’re a Jewish student, or a Muslim student, or a Hindu student. And there are just as many of those kids now, as there are kids from mainline denominations.

Having the Ten Commandments down at the court house may feel like a fine thing to many people. It gives them a connection with their faith, and it symbolizes God’s law to them.

But for non-Christians or non-Jews, if they come into the court house and see the Ten Commandments, how does that make them feel? That only Jews and Christians can get justice in our system?  That if you’re not a Christian, you’re automatically going to lose in court? That everyone else is a second rate citizen?

That’s the message they’re going to get.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the Ten Commandments myself. I do! But “liberty and justice for all” means just that. Everyone. Not just people who share my faith.

I have been treated – my life has been saved – by Muslim doctors. So has my wife. So has my mother. If you go to the hospital here in High Point, or live in a nursing home, you’re going to meet lots of Muslims on the staff. The ones who have treated me and my family did so to the utmost of their training and skill. They deserve the same from Christians in return.

I greet them politely. I thank them for what they do. I ask them if they feel welcome here, or if they’ve had problems being accepted. They know I’m a Christian, they know I’m a minister. I may not share their faith, but I treat them with courtesy and with respect. I’m not saying that religions are all the same. They’re not. I choose to be a Quaker, because for me, it’s the best way that I know of being a Christian.

I’m passionate about the Bible. I care deeply about prayer, and service, and sharing the gospel. But I also believe that these are matters for the individual and for the church to deal with. The government has no business promoting any one religion or another.

The First Commandment is still the same – to have no other gods but the Lord, not to bow down to any other gods, to honor the Lord, to worship the Lord.

But in our society, balanced against the First Commandment, we also have the First Amendment. It guarantees freedom of religion for everyone, and it also guarantees freedom from religion, from the tyranny of any religious majority or minority, from any opinion which would restrict my religious freedom.

That’s a right, and it applies equally to everyone in our country. It may not always be comfortable, but I think it’s a blessing. It protects us from a lot of injustice. It in no way restricts my belief. But it helps us all to live in peace. And when you look out across the world and see how much violence is done in the name of God and religion, peace looks pretty good.

Quakers have been pioneers in religious freedom. We understood the issues, and on many occasions we have suffered for our rights. Because of that, we understand the rights of others, not just as an abstract theory, but as a daily struggle.

We understand what it means to live the way we choose, to worship in whatever way we think best, to have our own peculiarities and accept the peculiarities of others. That’s called respect, and respect is the foundation of religious freedom.

If we want it ourselves, we have to give it whole-heartedly to others. If we want to live in peace, we have to want peace, and work for peace, with our neighbors.

We don’t own this country. We share it. We all live here together. And God’s name is honored, not by making everyone the same, but by each of us honoring God in the best way we know how, and by recognizing that same desire for freedom in others.

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