At the Heart of the American Soul

All during this COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard about First Amendment rights being in conflict with restrictions placed on religious gatherings—whether a congregation could occupy their facilities, how many are allowed to gather, and in a few cases it was reported that there were restrictions on what could be said.

All that got my attention, but I have to admit that I was a little unclear in my understanding of our nation’s history when it came to religious liberty. It would be handy just to watch something on YouTube and adopt someone’s ideas if they sounded good, but I wanted to go back in history to how these liberties came into being.

One of the best sources I found was a book written by John M. Barry entitled “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.” You may not be familiar with Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, and what he stood for, but two things stand out—liberty of conscience and separation of church and state.

These two concepts might sound familiar to you. They are at the heart of the first half of the First Amendment to our constitution, “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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Why do I bring this up? Someone in my congregation asked me recently: “Where can I get the truth? There’s so much contradictory news, so much opinion being spun into a narrative for us to believe.” An episode in the mission work of the Apostle Paul came to mind. In Acts chapter 17, verses 10-12 it says that there were, “fair-minded,” people who heard what Paul had to say about the gospel and searched the scriptures daily to see whether those things were so. Good idea!

Let’s search things out. Let’s verify. Let’s utilize our public library. Let’s invest the time to dig deeper into the issues we face today. That experience is at the heart of the American soul, and it’s worth it!