Over the past week, the world has been transfixed on the slaughter of innocents in Paris by Islamic terrorists determined to exact revenge on those who insult their prophet, Muhammad. Their barbaric actions have given the free world a sobering demonstration of what life in a culture devoid of freedom of speech and religion can be like. Worse, the deluded perpetrators of such carnage are convinced their actions win the approval of Allah because they both hasten the coming of a worldwide Islamic Caliphate and guarantee for them the Islamic version of the martyr’s reward in Paradise, grounded in the Qur’an (56:36; 78:33) and specified in the Hadith. For men, the reward is endless sexual power for pleasure with 72 virgins, according to one of the six Hadith collections graded as authentic “hasan sahih gharib.” For women, only one husband, with whom she will be satisfied, because she is not like men in her makeup and nature (Islam Q & A, Fatwa No. 11419 by Shaykh ‘Abd-Allaah ibn Jibreen). Thus death for the Islamic warrior killed in Jihad is far more desirable than life (Qur’an 4:74).
As I watched the horrific savagery executed in the name of Allah, I was struck by the contemporary contrast between Christianity and Islam. At no time in recent history has there been such ridicule, antagonism, discrimination, and persecution against those who follow Christ and seek to live by Biblical precepts as exists today. Far beyond an insulting, degrading depiction of Christ in a cartoon, our courts too often rule counter to Biblical moral absolutes and even attempt to exclude symbols of Christianity, like the cross and nativities, from public property and even cemeteries. Our president issues executive orders contrary to Biblical teaching on marriage, the priority of work, and personal responsibility. Such dictums have even restricted the freedom of military chaplains to pray in the name of Christ while catering to the demands of atheists, Wicca, and Islam. Our public educational institutions regularly exclude God, prayer, the Bible, and even the Ten Commandments from classrooms and events due to the lawfare waged by the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Yet, although we as Bible-believing Christians are often shocked and saddened by such illogical and self-destructive opposition, our reaction is to employ tempered, nonviolent opposition along with prayer for those who despitefully use us. In contrast to Muhammad’s “convert, pay taxes or die by the sword” response to opposition (which radical Muslims claim is authorized by the Qur’an), Christian reaction is generally reflective of the response modeled by Jesus Christ, Himself, who although despised, rejected and crucified said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Across the broad spectrum of those who call themselves Christian, violence and murder, of the kind carried out by Islamic terrorists, is conspicuously absent. While Christ’s final command was to go into all the world and make disciples, the apostles and early disciples were invariably the ones who either feared for or lost their lives. It was Peter, alone, who wielded the sword in defense of Jesus, but our Lord subsequently rebuked his impetuousness and supernaturally repaired the damage done to the ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest.
In America today, the freedom of speech and religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment, has become a hallmark of our civilization. Despite incessant efforts to challenge these precious freedoms, they remain constitutional; and when adequately defended, those who would overturn these freedoms are usually defeated. Unfortunately, however, recent court decisions and presidential edicts appear to signal a full court press against the freedoms that up until now we have taken for granted. Today, few are aware of the sacrifice, persecution, and hardship suffered by those who bequeathed us these freedoms dating back to the early 17th century and before. According to historian George Bancroft, it was the Baptists of America who broke the tyranny of Europe and the Old World Order of Rome. He writes in his History of the United States, “The sect of the Anabaptists, ‘the scum of the Reformation,’ with greater consistency than Luther applied the doctrine of the Reformation to the social relations of life and threatened an end to king-craft spiritual domination, tithes and vassalage. They were trodden underfoot with foul reproaches and most arrogant scorn; and its history is written in the blood of myriads of the German peasantry, but its principles, safe in their immortality, escaped to Providence.”
In his book Baptists, the Only Thorough Religious Reformers, which Charles H. Spurgeon regarded as the best manual of Baptist principles available, J. Q. Adams, theologian and Baptist pastor in Cauldwell, N.J., wrote, “To the advocacy and propagation of the principles here presented, our country owes all it possesses of true greatness. American principles are essentially Baptist principles.” And though many are obsessed with the denial of such a truth, even Harvard professor David Little affirmed this reality in his work Conscience, Theology, and the First Amendment (Cambridge: Soundings, Summer/Fall, 1989) when he observed, “John Locke’s letters on religious toleration and the freedom of conscience explicitly influenced the thought of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two founders who played such an important role in working out the early legislative formulations of freedom. And Locke’s ideas , in turn, are, with one or two exceptions, simply restatements of the central arguments in favor of freedom of conscience developed by Roger Williams, in the middle of the 17th Century, when Locke’s opinions on these subjects were being shaped” (emphasis added).
Baptists, especially, should be aware that Roger Williams, the first Baptist in America, originally coined the phrase “wall of separation,” describing the relationship between church and state. He first used the phase in 1644 to describe Baptist belief that church and state should be kept separate. He opposed any intrusion by the state into the free exercise of religion and desired to ensure the disestablishment of religion from government. Williams’ espousal of this view was based on church history from the fifth century through the Reformation, when church and state ruled together, resulting in wars, destruction, killings, and persecutions of those opposed to state religion. He also realized, as Baptists in Holland had before him, that even when Christianity was the religion officially espoused by the state, it was false religion. Baptists historically reasoned that unless religion was voluntary and derived from a free conscience, as taught by Christ, it became the enemy of genuine faith.
Because of his opposition to state religion, Williams was intensely persecuted and almost died at the hands of the Puritan (Congregational) state church of New England. He subsequently purchased land from Native Americans and founded Providence Plantations in 1636 (known now as Providence, Rhode Island), and eight years later established the colony of Rhode Island. The founding principles of both were freedom of religion (religious liberty) and separation of church and state. Because these views were considered radical in colonial America, Williams and his fellow Baptists were deemed liberals, heretics, and infidels by other Christians. The generations of Baptists that followed continued to fight for separation of church and state, experiencing continued persecution from both the northern and southern colonies. Those who refused to pay taxes to the state church and refused infant baptism were beaten, whipped, jailed, stoned, shot, waterboarded, and in some cases even their land was confiscated. Some were accused of child abuse for not baptizing their infants into the state religion and, in retaliation, state officials even took their children from them. In fact, between 1768 and 1786, approximately 50 percent of Virginia Baptist preachers were arrested and jailed for preaching in public, refusing to pay taxes or in other ways defying the theocratic government of Virginia.
In 1770, however, when America rebelled again the tyranny of Great Britain, most of the colonies were still ruled by church states and, even as their governments and politicians proclaimed freedom from England, they denied religious freedom to Baptists. However, because the Baptist patriots were such an asset in the struggle for independence, they soon acquired powerful allies in Virginia with whom they joined forces to separate church and state. Among these were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Virginia Baptists, ably represented by popular evangelist John Leland, greatly aided the efforts of Madison and Jefferson to establish Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This statute effectively separated church and state in colonial Virginia ushering in religious liberty for its citizens. It was just five years later in 1791 that the 200-year campaign by Baptists to implement separation of church and state was realized, culminating in the words of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. It stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While the freedoms of religion and speech are sometimes abused by certain churches and other segments of our American society, they constitute a cherished liberty which our Baptist forebears defended at great personal sacrifice.
Was the intent of the First Amendment to preclude any influence of God, the Bible, and the church on the state? I believe the evidence from the words and works of Thomas Jefferson militate against such a view. According to William Federer in his work America’s God and Country, Jefferson not only supported religious causes and signed bills which appropriated financial support for chaplains in Congress and in the armed services, but he also signed the articles of war (April 10, 1806) in which he recommended that all officers and soldiers diligently attend divine services. When he established the University of Virginia, he encouraged the teaching of religion and set aside a place inside the Rotunda for chapel services. He also approved of the use of the courthouse in his home town for church services. When he addressed the Danbury Baptists, his use of the term “wall of separation,” which divided church and state, was to mitigate their concerns over the possible establishment of a state religion. It was never meant to exclude the influence of the church on the state. In fact, in the catalog which listed all the books in his personal library, Jefferson wrote the following on the title page: “I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
However, there was one religion with which Jefferson became intensely exasperated . . . the religion of Islam on the Barbary Coast. My friend Michael Antonovich, mayor of Los Angeles County, recently shared the following account with me:
Shortly after being sworn in as America’s third president in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli sent [Jefferson] a note demanding the immediate payment of $225,000 plus $25,000 a year for every year forthcoming. That changed everything. Jefferson let the Pasha know, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his demand. The Pasha responded by cutting down the flagpole at the American Consulate and declared war on the United States. Tunis, Morocco and Algiers immediately followed suit. Up to that point, Jefferson had been against raising a naval force for anything beyond coastal defense, but having watched his nation being perpetually plagued and cowed by Islamic thuggery for so long, he decided it was time to meet force with force. He dispatched a squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean and taught the Muslim nations of the Barbary Coast a lesson he hoped they would never forget. Congress authorized Jefferson to empower U.S. ships to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli and to “cause to be done all other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war would justify.” Algiers and Tunis, both accustomed to American cowardice and acquiescence quickly abandoned their allegiance to Tripoli when they observed the will and might of the newly independent United States to strike back.
The war with Tripoli lasted for four more years and ignited again in 1815. The bravery of the U.S. Marine Corps in these wars sourced the refrain, “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn. Subsequently the marines would forever be known as “leathernecks” for the leather collars of their uniforms, designed to shield their necks from decapitation by the Muslim scimitars when boarding enemy ships. Islam and what its Barbary followers justified in the name of Muhammad and Allah disturbed Jefferson deeply. America had a tradition of religious tolerance, evidenced by the fact that Jefferson, himself, had coauthored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but this was unlike any other religion the world had ever seen. It was a religion based on supremacism, whose holy book not only condoned but mandated violence against unbelievers. This was unacceptable to Jefferson, and his greatest fear was that someday this brand of Islam would return and pose an even greater threat to the United States.
Today, it appears that Jefferson’s fears are being realized. Would that America’s current governmental leadership would respond in a more Jeffersonian manner. By not fighting back, by allowing groups to obfuscate what is really happening, and not insisting that Islamists adapt to our own culture, the United States is cutting its own throat with a politically correct knife, and enabling Islamic terrorists to further their agenda of a world-wide caliphate accompanied by the implementation of Sharia Law. Perhaps it was Benjamin Franklin who said it best: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.”
David R. Nicholas (ThD, Grace Theological Seminary) is president of Shasta Bible College and Graduate School, Redding, Calif.