Monday, October 09, 2006

Opening remarks by Eric Williams

Here are the opening remarks of Rev. Eric Williams from the forum I attended earlier.
I was raised in Ohio--a small town in northwestern Ohio. From a middle class family. I would describe my life as really middle of the road--very little cultural or religious diversity. My neighbors looked and sounded and believed much like me. Farmers. Republicans. Presbyterians. Republicans. Methodists. Republicans. Lutherans. Republicans. The Baptists and the Roman Catholics, well, they had to go down river to worship. (Laughter)

Today, I look at my neighbors, and I see great diversity. I listen to my neighbors and I hear them talk about their faith using many different names for God. The religions of my neighbors today include Christianity, Secularism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Agnosticism, Atheism, Hinduism, Unitarian Universalism, Paganism, Spiritualism, Native American religion, Bahai, New Age, Sikhism, Scientology, Humanism, Deism, Taoism, and many other faiths. (Applause) As a Christian, I do not seek to diminish or discredit my neighbor's religion. Instead, I heed the words of the great prophet Joshua, "Now, if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

As I recognize significant and central differences in my neighbor's religions, I seek to respect and honor my neighbors in and through those differences, as Jesus advised his disciples when he said "Whoever is not against me, is for me."

I'm also a citizen of the church, raised in the American Lutheran church, rooted in the American expression of the great Protestant reformation and inspired by Martin Luther. Inspired by Martin Luther's invitation to dissent, when in 1517 he posted on the church door 95 theses, seeking to reform the political and theological abuses of the church. Inspired by Martin Luther's courage in the face of intolerance and threat, when he said, "Here I stand--I can do no other." Inspired by Martin Luther's recover of "sola scriptura"--that is, God's word being open to all believers. Inspired by Martin Luther's embrace of the Gospel of God's unconditional, unfailing love, for each and every person, despite our failures of faith and love. Inspired by one voice of faith, calling other voices of faith, to seek religious forum (?) and religious liberty.

This led to the English Reformation. Pilgrims and Puritans seeking relief and freedom from the established church of England. Many fled from the intolerance and persecution. They traveled to Amsterdam and eventually to these shores. In 1620, Reverend John Robinson sent the first pilgims to America with these words, "And if God should reveal anything to you, be as ready to receive it. For there is yet more light and truth to break forth from God's holy word."

Pilgrims and Puritans sought religious liberty in this new land, but they did not extend that liberty to others. Instead, they established state churches. They required state orthodoxy. They governed religious and civic life, really as Protestant theocracies. Reverend Roger Williams was a Christian minister who immigrated to the Massachusetts colony in 1630. And five years later he was banished from there. Why? Because he was a passionate champion for religious liberty. He argued for the separation of church and state. He wrote, "When the church has opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God has ever broken down that wall itself, and removed the candlestick, and made his garden the wildrness that it is this day. Therefore, if God will ever please to restore his garden and paradise again, it must be walled in from the world."

James Madison was a member of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention. He was an outspoken advocate of religious liberty. Madison, like his senior colleague, Thomas Jefferson, feared that a small group of powerful churches could join together and seek special favors from the government. That religion would seek the power of the state to coerce religious belief and civic behavior. At the same time, Madison favored what he called a "multiplicity of religions". The free expression of a great diversity of religious beliefs and practices would guard against any government favoritism. The power, the intent of the words of that First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is echoed in the cry for religious liberty and the call for separation of church and state.

Jimmy Carter was the first president I voted for--oops! I just outed myself, didn't I? I voted for an Evangelical president! (laughter) And in his book, Our Endangered Values, Carter wrote, "Thomas Jefferson, in the original days of our country said that he was fearful that the church might influence the state to take away human liberty." Roger Williams, who created the first Baptist church in our country, was afraid that the church might be corrupted by the state. These two concerns led to the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of any official state church, and in the same sentence, prohibits the passage of any laws that might interfere with religious freedom. Separation is specified in the law. But, for a religious person, there is nothing wrong with bringing these two together, because you can't divorce religous beliefs from public service. At the same time, of course, in public office you cannot impose your own religious beliefs on others.

In conclusion, I am forever a Buckeye. And as a religious leader, I find myself in the middle of the road, responding to a great cultural and religious diversity that informs our religious life, that enriches my religious experience. I find hope and courage in my expectation that there is yet more light and truth to break forth from God's holy word. I am convinced that the free expression of our nation's great diversity of religious beliefs and practices, can and will guard against any governmental favoritism, or prohibition. In religious faith, in patriotic fervor, I continue to call for the separation of church and state, and cry out for religious liberty and justice for all.

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