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FIRST-PERSON: Celebrating liberty on Religious Freedom Sunday

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An important day for American believers is just around the corner: Religious Freedom Sunday, held this year on Jan. 10. It’s a special day for churches to remember the precious freedoms that all Americans enjoy under the U.S. Constitution expressly stated in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution). The theme for Religious Freedom Sunday comes from the Bible verse quoted on the Liberty Bell — “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10).

When it comes to the issue of religious freedom in America, often the phrase “separation of church and state” comes to mind. But what exactly does that phrase mean and where does it come from? Actually, the notion of a separation of church and state has come to mean the loss of religious liberty in practical terms.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution plainly forbids the creation of a national church, because that would be an “establishment of religion.” However, the Constitution says nothing about the so-called “separation of church and state” that is referred to so often in the public discourse today. The phrase simply does not exist in any of our nation’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights). It is a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in a personal letter that he wrote to some pastors from the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association of churches in 1802.

In the early 1800s, many of the original states had churches sanctioned by state governments. These were “established churches,” but because they were state matters, they were not forbidden in the U.S. Constitution. Mostly, the state churches were Anglican, Congregational or Presbyterian, created through each state’s elected representatives. The only state without an official church was Rhode Island, established by the banished Baptist pastor, Roger Williams.

James Madison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a framer of the Constitution, and an author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), helped fashion the First Amendment. Madison explained that: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretest, abridged.”

The Christian religion, in some form or fashion, was held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution. Their own writings prove this.

The sixth president of the U.S., John Quincy Adams, said: “Our political way of life is by the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, and of course presupposes the existence of God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and government.”


In the early 21st century, the biblical bedrock of American government is crumbling due to a pervasive lie that the Constitution requires the church (the body of Christ) to stay out of matters of the state. This doctrine has given some church leaders a rationale to be silent on cultural and political issues, and the nation is morally ignorant because of it. Is it any wonder that we are suffering in so many areas of society? Upwards of 50 million babies have died in America through legalized abortion, and most Christian people either do not know about this infanticide or feel powerless to do anything about it. The Old Testament prophet, Hosea, lamented: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

Many Americans today assume that the words “separation of church and state” are written in the Constitution, even though they are not. Thomas Jefferson usually gets the blame for introducing the separation doctrine, but actually it was Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black that moved the separation phrase into common jurisprudence in the 1947 decision, Everson v. Board of Education. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down decision after decision eradicating Christianity from the public schools and the civic arena.

As a result of the absence of Christian values in the government due to the separation of church and state doctrine, we now have the legalized butchering of children in the womb, “same-sex marriage” and homosexual adoption, tax-supported gambling through the state lottery, no-fault divorce laws that leave millions of innocent children in poor single-parent homes, television programs that parade sodomy and pornography through Americans’ living rooms in the name of “free speech,” and a pervasive fear, on the part of many pastors, to preach on moral and cultural topics from God’s word.

Jesus said: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). It is very important that Christian Americans know the truth about our religious freedoms and that we pass this truth down to our children and grandchildren so that American might continue to be the “land of the free.”
David Shelley is pastor of Smith Springs Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and director of church and community relations for the Family Action Council of Tennessee.

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  • David Shelley