In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush and other leaders have taken great pains to assure us that Islam is a peace-loving religion. We are constantly being told that America is a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims can walk hand in hand. Undoubtedly this is good politics. It helps to reassure the leaders of Muslim nations that we are not at war with them, or their religion, but only with an evil and violent network of terrorists.

What is less clear is whether this affirmation of Islam makes for good religion. Notwithstanding all the recent claims that Islam is a peace-loving religion, the Koran itself teaches that unbelievers should be put to death. “Fight those who do not profess the true faith,” the Koran says; “Fight those who believe not in Allah” (9:29). “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah… will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet and alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land” (5:33). Islam is a fundamentally intolerant faith.

With all of the current turmoil in politics and world religion, it is important to remember what Christianity teaches about the freedom of religion. This month is an especially good time to remember, because it marks the 300th anniversary of religious liberty in America.

In the Charter of Privileges that he wrote on October 28, 1701, William Penn argued that “no people can be truly happy though under the Greatest Enjoyments of Civil Liberties if Abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences as to their Religious Profession and worship.” In other words, all our other freedoms will become meaningless if we lose the freedom of religion.

With this danger in mind, William Penn went on to make the following declaration:

I do hereby Grant and Declare that no person or persons Inhabiting in this Province or Territories who shall Confess and Acknowledge one Almighty God the Creator upholder and Ruler of the world and profess him or themselves Obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or their person or Estate because of his or their Conscientious persuasion or practice nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any Religious Worship place or Ministry contrary to his or their mind or do or Suffer any other act or thing contrary to their Religious persuasion [some spelling has been modernized].

To put all this more simply, citizens cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their religion; nor can they be coerced into practicing a religion that they do not wish to claim as their own. America has been a land of religious liberty ever since.

William Penn’s interest in the freedom of religion partly arose out of his own experience. He had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for his Quaker beliefs. Indeed, it was while he was locked up in the Tower that he developed his plan for a free society protecting the freedom of the conscience.

Religious liberty has always been part of what it means to be a good Pennsylvanian. It is also part of what it means to be a good Presbyterian. Even before William Penn, English and Scottish Presbyterians argued for the necessity of religious liberty. Indeed, Penn’s convictions on the subject came from his study of Reformed theologians such as John Owen. In our own Westminster Confession of Faith (XXIII.3) we read that

it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest… . And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever…

Why is religious liberty so important to us as Christians? In part, it is because we cherish our own freedom to assemble for public worship and to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ. We would do these things anyway, of course, but it is one of our great privileges as citizens of the United States to worship and witness under the full protection of the law.

But why are we in favor of extending the same freedom to others, including people of other faiths, or even people who do not claim to be religious at all? It is because we believe in the power of God. We believe that the Holy Spirit, speaking in Scripture, has the power to save sinners, and this change is an inward transformation that cannot be outwardly coerced. As long as we have the freedom to teach what the Bible says about the person and work of Jesus Christ, then even if other people have the freedom to share other faiths, we know that God will do his saving work through his gospel. All we ask is the freedom of our religion.

Fifty years after William Penn signed his famous Charter, the City of Philadelphia commemorated the occasion by commissioning a bell. In the Old Testament, the fiftieth year is the Jubilee–a year of liberty. Mindful of that fact, the citizens of Philadelphia engraved the bell with a text from Leviticus: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). By the command of Almighty God, this is still our duty today: to proclaim freedom in Christ throughout the land. By God’s grace it is also our freedom. May it ever remain so.

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