Religious freedom is a tenet that has come to mean a great many things throughout our nations history. Often claimed as a defining American principle, most struggle to articulate or agree on what it actual means. The Supreme Court has ruled numerous times about the 1st Amendment and the “Establishment Clause” and many speak of a wall separating church and state. Yet, the reality is the church is made up of people, people who live within this nation, and whose faith certainly impacts their political lives (political as understood as being part of the “polis,” the city/community; not as political party). Living in community, in the polis, we participate in life together and in this life Christ’s command to love our neighbor means that our faith is and always has been public.
So what really is religious freedom and how do we understand it in this most polarized time? To assist you, leaders in our congregations, our fall leadership conference (Oct. 19-20) will focus on this topic. Use Promo Code “special25” (case-sensitive) for $25 off before 11:55pm on Monday, October 12. This will be an online event open to anyone who desires to participate and learn more about the varied and nuanced history of religious freedom in America. Additionally, Briarwood Leadership Center is planning to offer conversations in the weeks before the election aimed at trying to help us listen better to each other. Another resource is offered to you through our partnership with ELCA Coaching. Wednesday September 30th the Rev. Dr. George Mason, our 2017 Assembly keynote speaker, took time to gather with leaders from across our church to discuss our polarized world and how we as faith leaders can respond as “Custodians of the Gospel.” His message is inspiring and informative. I am grateful for Rev. Mason’s consistent leadership in the Dallas area and beyond.
As your bishop I am well aware of the heightened and increasing anxiety you as leaders are facing as we get ever closer to the Nov. 3rd election. Our nation is polarized and divided and your congregations do not escape that division. However, we have theological, historical, and leadership resources to bring to these challenging times. 500 years ago in 1620 Martin Luther wrote his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian” in which he outlined his vision of Christian liberty based in Christ’s commands. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of this important work the ELCA Churchwide staff have developed study guides to support your engagement with Luther’s work from so many years ago. I would encourage, as we engage in these conversations of religious freedom, to also take up this text and study it, ideally together. Reminded our freedom as defined here is not freedom from, but freedom for a life of service and love towards neighbor.
Being part of the ELCA we also have social statements and teachings of our church that help guide us in discernment. Our 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly authorized the development of a Social Message and ultimately Social Statement on Government and Civic Engagement in the United States: Discipleship in a Democracy. The social message, along with study guides and ways to participate in the crafting of the final social statement product are available as well. Finally, in a time when we are seeing racial tensions rise our Churchwide Assembly also made clear our stand as a church against the evils of racism and particularly the ideology of White Supremacy. Including our very clear social policy resolution condemning White Supremacy and Racist Rhetoric. These resources can serve as guides for us as we do this work of thinking about what our religious freedom means and how we are called to engage our work in “the polis” as disciples of Jesus and also to invite others into a life of discipleship. In addition Briarwood Leadership Center will be hosting two conversations in October to follow up on our Leadership Convocation. These conversations with prominent thought leaders in evangelical life will help us better understand ourselves and our neighbors. Hunter Baker is a prominent conservative evangelical thinker and writer. Shane Claiborne is a well known progressive evangelical writer and leader. Both bring commitment to faith that engages public life.
The freedom to gather for worship, to proclaim the gospel, and to speak out of our faith on behalf of our neighbor is not something that has always been granted by nations. As we engage in this work I encourage you as leaders to take advantage of these resources and learning opportunities. Our faith informs all our life as we continue, as the baptized people of God, to share the good news of Christ with others and invite them into a life of discipleship.