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Freedom to Believe or Not to Believe

Every year during the week of July 4th, a full-page ad is run in the Daily Camera and newspapers across the country. This ad proclaims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and provides selected quotes from individuals present at the settling of or founding of the United States. The reality is that many who settled the first 13 colonies had visions such as John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” of a new nation that would be a beacon of Christian faith. These who were persecuted in England and Europe would soon establish their brand of faith as the established church in their respective colonies. And the once persecuted became persecutors themselves.

In fact, 8 of the first 13 colonies had state churches, some required all citizens of the respective colony to pay taxes to support the state church. Persons in these colonies with state churches were fined and /or imprisoned if they practiced faith beliefs different from the established church. State support of religion continued into the late 1800s in some states. The colonies without established churches were Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Beginning with the Renaissance, humanity began throwing off the shackles of religious conformity dominate in either Roman Catholicism or the Anglican Church of England which had broken away from Catholicism to allow Kings to have multiple marriages (think Henry VIII). With the advent of the printing press and the translation of scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into German initially and English in Great Britain, the sacred texts were accessible to the common people and soon the Reformation began. Even though King James I had authorized the translation of the scriptures into English, he was reminded by Thomas Helwys, a religious dissenter to the Church of England, that while he was king, he was not lord of the conscience or the soul. Helwys was arrested and died in prison.

The Renaissance produced the Enlightenment and Enlightenment Rationalism which became vital influences between the time of the settling of the first colonies in the early 1600s and the pursuit of independence in the 1770s. Following the American Revolution, the colonies turned to the founding of the new nation. The Constitutional Convention met in 1787 and eventually hammered out the Constitution. While some spoke passionately about favoring the Christian religion, the only mention of religion in our founding document is in Article VI which states that no religious test shall be required of an office holder.

The Constitution was ratified by the colonies in 1789 and the Bill of Rights was introduced as amendments to the Constitution. These amendments were ratified in 1791. The very first Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It also protects against the abridgement of the freedom of speech or of the press, or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The reading from the Freedom of Thought Report of the International Humanist and Ethical Union written by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed with the United Nations, notes that freedom of religion is grounded in freedom of thought and conscience. Freedom of religion, grounded in a free conscience, protects theistic, nontheistic and atheistic beliefs. It allows for both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. What drove our founders at the formation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was the sacredness of the freedom of thought - the right to believe or not believe in God according to the dictates of individual conscience.

Our gospel reading in Mark 6 has Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth and on the Sabbath, he begins to teach the scriptures in the synagogue. The people are astounded by his wisdom and the miracles they have heard about from the news preceding his arrival. They wonder out loud, isn’t this Mary’s son the carpenter, are these not his brothers and his sisters? Jesus is amazed himself and quips that a “prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among his own relatives and in his own household.” How many of us have different religious beliefs and values in our families? While he wonders at their unbelief, Jesus respects them and takes his teaching elsewhere.

The freedom to believe or not believe is sacred to both our nation and to our faith. Jesus allows his family their thoughts even though bothered by their “unbelief.” Maybe he understood that a compelled faith is no faith. In the United Church of Christ, we embrace freedom of thought and conscience in an affirmation of what is commonly referred to as the priesthood of the believer or individual, the freedom to determine one’s beliefs, to determine for oneself what is sacred.

For some the Hebrew and Greek scriptures are sacred and meant to be understood and applied to life. For some, science is sacred and informs all of our beliefs and values. Others fully embrace as sacred, other writings that inform other religious thoughts, such as Buddhism. Still others have beliefs and faith practices that are influenced by Native Americans’ sense of the Spirit, that all creation is sacred and divine. We each have our sense of the sacred that includes some combination of all of the above and perhaps more.

When it comes to Jesus, we are much like Jesus’ family and neighbors in Nazareth. Some of our congregation believe that Jesus is the Son of God, co-equal to God, present at and the agent of creation, who was killed, buried, and raised from the dead and walked with his followers before ascending into heaven. Some of us believe that he is the son of man, an historical person, but not necessarily the Christ, a title bestowed on him by the early church but one he never claimed for himself. Some find in the life and ministry of Jesus, a moral example of how to live in relationship to others and the world.

When we stand up for immigrant children in the land it is because we know Jesus welcomed and loved children and the strangers in the land. When we stand up for women, it is because Jesus respected women in cultures that did not. When we march against gun violence, we do so because Jesus hated violence. When we speak against actions and policies that take from support for the poor and elderly and give it to the wealthiest, it is because Jesus was on the side of the poor. Whether Son of God or son of man, Jesus informs our thoughts and actions.

Our conscience led beliefs reflect a wide spectrum of thought, values and sacred practices. At CUCC we are joined together not by a uniformity of beliefs, but by a sense of community that respects one another where ever we are on life’s journey. Whatever our differing beliefs might be, we feel called to live compassionately, caring for the poor and disenfranchised, the sick, the immigrant or stranger in the land. We advocate for peace and social justice. We profess that the Divine is still speaking – in fellowship hour conversations, through sharing of joys and concerns, in thoughts generated by the readings or the music and the hymns, or by (and sometimes in spite of) the sermon. We connect with the Creator through that which we hold sacred and through family and friends, through the beauty of creation. We are a community bound together by love, both given and received. Thanks be to God.


Mark 6:1-6

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

By Ahmed Shaheed

Dr Shaheed is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as of 1 November 2016. From Freedom of Thought Report of the International Humanist and Ethical Union

The right to freedom of religion or belief is a right that is frequently misunderstood by its conflation with narrowly defined views on religious freedom. Such narratives often overlook the fact that the freedom of religion or belief includes the freedom of thought and conscience, protected on an equal footing under international human rights law. Moreover, as the Human Rights Committee (of the United Nations) points out, “religion” and “belief” are to be understood broadly, covering theistic, non-theistic, and atheistic beliefs. Thus, the freedom of religion or belief protects individuals who adhere to traditional as well as new religions and to majority or minority faith communities, and those who are dissenters or who subscribe to no religion or belief at all or who are unconcerned. In fact, international human rights law protects both the freedom of religion and its corollary, the freedom from religion, for without the latter, the former has no practical meaning at all.

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