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The Presbyterian Citizen

July 6, 2015

“The Presbyterian Citizen” © 7.5.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In 1780, the former Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Joseph Galloway, wrote from England that the American Revolution was caused by Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Galloway had opposed independence and fled to Britain in 1778. He said: “the principal matter recommended by the faction in New England, was an union of the congregational and presbyterian [sic] interests, throughout the Colonies… Thus the Presbyterians in the southern Colonies, who, while unconnected in their several congregations, were of little significance, were raised into weight and consequence; and a dangerous combination of men, whose principles of religion and polity were equally averse to those of the established Church and Government, was formed” (http://www.phcmontreat.org/AmericanIndependence.htm).

One of the Presbyterians Galloway may have had in mind was James Caldwell, a military chaplain at Elizabeth, NJ. At the battle of Springfield, NJ, on June 23, 1780, when his company ran out of paper wadding to load bullets for their rifles, Caldwell reportedly dashed into the Presbyterian Church, scooped up as many Isaac Watts hymnals as he could carry, and distributed them to the troops, shouting “put Watts into them, boys.” The British burned the church and much of the town, but were turned back by the American forces (http://www.phcmontreat.org/AmericanIndependence.htm).

But if Caldwell’s actions were memorable, much more so were those of John Witherspoon, the only college president and only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon had emigrated from Scotland to head the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University. Besides his administrative duties, Witherspoon also taught classes, and as a professor he trained one US President, James Madison; a Vice-President, twenty senators, twenty-three representatives, and three Supreme Court justices. In 1789, Witherspoon was the convening moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the new nation, a denomination he had worked actively to form over a period of four years, drafting its catechism, confession of faith, directory for worship, form of government, and rules of discipline.

Both Witherspoon and Caldwell, and so many others, in their respective actions, exemplified the historic Presbyterian suspicion of too much power in the hands of too few. They knew, as our Book of Order puts it, the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny. We join those forebears in the American Revolution by doing what we can to secure the blessings of liberty for all and seeking to transform society in the direction of justice. Such work is part of being a Presbyterian citizen.

Witherspoon presided over an Assembly that had grown out of the old Synod of New York and Philadelphia, which had divided into four synods in 1788. In that same year, the original synod adopted historic principles of church order which have guided the church ever since. One of those I have valued most from the time I learned about it is this one: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (Book of Order F-3.0101.) That’s a direct quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which since 1729 had been the accepted statement of the Church. Unlike in other traditions, then, in our denomination, no church body can make a pronouncement or a law binding my conscience or yours. Plus you and I must respect each other’s scruples, and show what is called “mutual forbearance,” knowing, as the synod also said, that people of good characters and principles may differ. Sometimes that brings tension. On other occasions our approach leads to dialogue and understanding, and even, in God’s grace, to new discoveries about God’s truth. And lest we think that Westminster and the early synod limit exercise of freedom of conscience only to so-called “spiritual” matters, consider that for believers, all of life is an adventure of faith, every moment is worship. So we are called and expected to exercise our freedom on a broad spectrum of personal choices in every area of life.

Our liberty ends, of course, when what we choose does harm to our neighbor. But consider what it truly takes to do harm, contrary to the screams of persecution we hear today from some. Thomas Jefferson was no Presbyterian, but he sounds very Reformed here: “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error” (https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs).

Growing out of freedom of conscience was the separation of church and state. That’s another principle the Presbyterian citizen adheres to. The synod in 1788 stated: “Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others” (Book of Order F-3.0101).

I’m struck by how Jefferson derived a similar conclusion from the protection of conscience in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties” (January 1;  http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html).

The classic Presbyterian position calls into question, then, any action by a government or demand by the church that advantages one group of spiritual beliefs over others. It ought to give us pause, therefore, when we hear explicitly and exclusively Christian prayers at football games or graduation or at the opening of official government meetings. We might wonder about the rightness of the housing allowance of religious leaders of whatever faith being exempt from income tax. And if the church or the mosque or the synagogue ever was separated from other 501(c)(3) organizations and given special privileges other non-profits don’t have, Presbyterians should raise objections.

But perhaps the most cringe-worthy phenomenon we see today is politicians and judges basing their decisions about the worthiness of laws or the proper outcome of cases on their personal religious beliefs, thereby privileging in microcosm one faith over another. Instead, every leader ought to come to conclusions derived from science, sound precedent, and shared values across the spectrum of faith and politics, values and virtues common to a free people, whatever their faith. As Witherspoon taught, the public morality and judgment of leaders should be derived from ancient virtues like justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. Justice meant, he said, “giving or permitting others to enjoy whatever they have a perfect right to—and making such a use of our own rights as not to encroach upon the rights of others” (Lectures on Moral Philosophy). For him, public morality owed more to natural law than to Christian ethics, though he thought religion was the necessary foundation for virtue. And any person, whatever his or her faith, could be virtuous (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Witherspoon).

I’m no fan of the Westminster Confession, but on this matter of leaders acting like theologians, I think the writers were brilliant. They said: “Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, 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, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. 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.” And take note especially of this sentence: “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 infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance” (Book of Confessions 6.129).

Finally, not only did the 18th century Presbyterians value conscience and the separation of church and state. They said that “truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it” (Book of Order F-3.0104).

In other words, what we think matters, whether expressed from the pulpit or at the dinner table or online or in a legislative body or on the campaign trail. Speech has consequences, sometimes unintended. Symbols like a flag or a hand motion, which are graphic representations of opinions, can inspire or incite. So we need to be careful about that meme we post on Facebook or that off-hand comment deriding this or that group, expressing an incendiary opinion. Yes, it’s our right, but who knows who’s reading it, and what action will be taken. Every preacher ought to be circumspect about what he or she says from the pulpit, and the same with every politician on the campaign trail or in the exercise of his or her office. Suppose I stood here and told you it was God’s will from the Bible that you kill members of a particular group or race. And you took it seriously, and went out and did that, because I am after all, the representative of God. Would I not bear responsibility in part for your crime of hatred?

Do you want to know who the truly faithful people are, the followers of Jesus? Look at the fruit of their words and actions. If they’re promoting hate, bigotry, and suspicion, no matter what they claim as their faith, they do not belong to Jesus or to God. And no matter what their professed faith, if they live with love, openness, and hope, and try to give that to their neighbors, they belong to our Lord.

This is hard stuff, not cut and dried or black and white. But as Jim Dollar wrote during his pastorate here, it’s not easy to be a Presbyterian. Perhaps that goes especially for living as a Presbyterian citizen.

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