I trace my spiritual lineage hack to a radical Baptist in England named Thomas Helwys who believed that God, and not the King, was Lord of conscience. In 1612 Roman Catholics were the embattled target of the Crown and Thomas Helwys, the Baptist, came to their defense with the first tract in English demanding full religious liberty. Here's what he said:
"Our Lord the King has no more power over their [Catholic] consciences than ours, and that is none at all.... For men's religion is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer it; neither may the King be judge betwixt God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatever. It appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."
The king was the good King James I--yes, that King James, as in the King James Bible. Challenges to his authority did not cause his head to rest easily on his James had Thomas Helwys thrown into prison, where he died.
Thomas Helwys was not the first or last dissenter to pay, the supreme price for conscience. While we are not called upon in to make a similar sacrifice, we are in need of his generous vision of religious freedom. We are heading into a new religious landscape. For most of our history our religious discourse was dominated by white male Protestants of a culturally conservative European heritage, people like me. Dissenting voices of America, alternative visions of faith, race, and gender, rarely reached the mainstream. It's different now. Immigration has added more than 30 million people to our population since the late 1960s. The American gene pool is mutating into one in which people like me will be a minority within half a century.
America is being re-created right before our eyes The world keeps moving to America, bringing new stories from the four corners of the globe. Gerard Bruns calls it a "contest of narratives" competing to shape a new American drama.
The old story had a paradox at its core. In no small part because of Baptists like Thomas Helwys and other "freethinkers," the men who framed our Constitution believed in religious tolerance in a secular republic. The state was not to choose sides among competing claims of faith So they embodied freedom of religion in the First Amendment. Another person's belief, said Thomas Jefferson, "neither picks my pocket not breaks my bones." It was a noble sentiment often breached in practice. The Indians who lived here first had more than their pockets picked; the Africans brought here forcibly against their will had more than their bones broken. Even when most Americans claimed a Protestant heritage and practically everyone looked alike, we often failed the tolerance test: Catholics, Jews and Mormons had to struggle to resist being absorbed without distinction into the giant mix-master of American assimilation
So our troubled past with tolerance requires us to ask how, in this new era when we are looking even less and less alike, are we to avoid the intolerance, the chauvinism, the fanaticism, the bitter fruits that mark the long history of world religions when they jostle each other in busy, crowded streets?
It is no rhetorical question. My friend Elaine Pagels, the noted scholar of religion, says "There's practically no religion I know of that sees other people in a way that affirms the other's choice." You only have to glance at the daily news to see how passions are stirred by claims of exclusive loyalty to one's own kin, one's own clan, one's own country, and one's own church. These ties that bind are vital to our communities and our lives, but they can also be twisted into a noose.
Religion has a healing side, but it also has a killing side. In the opening chapter of Genesis--the founding document of three great faiths--the first murder rises from a religious act. You know the story: Adam and Eve become the first parents to discover what it means to raise Cain God plays favorites and chooses Abel's offering over Cain. …