Religious Freedom & Why It Matters
Working in the Spirit of John Leland
by Robert P. George
Introduction: The John Leland Award
If Touchstone had a Mount Rushmore, there are several faces we would immediately want to etch on it—C. S. Lewis, Saints Athanasius and Augustine, maybe John Paul II or G. K. Chesterton or Billy Graham. But somewhere in the planning phase, I'd bring up a name most mere Christians in America don't know, but should.
That name is John Leland.
Leland (1754–1841) was a fiery Virginia Baptist preacher. He and his generation of Baptists are almost single-handedly responsible for the constitutional guarantees that allow us to publish a magazine—freely—when we're so out of step with the spirit of the age.
Leland was an irritant and a pest. He wouldn't leave sinners alone in their sin, and he wouldn't trust the politicians when they said there would be no problem "accommodating" religious practices in the newly founded American republic. He didn't want the politicians' promises; he wanted a guarantee, written down in the Constitution itself. His generation of politicians, mind you, included Mount Rushmore-caliber statesmen, and Leland was willing to work with all sorts of allies to secure this guarantee of religious liberty.
Leland was for religious liberty because he believed no bureaucrat could stand in for a person's soul at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Religious liberty wasn't, in his mind, a government grant from Uncle Caesar but a natural right grounded in the image of God and the gospel of Christ.
In 2013, when I was elected president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), one of the first decisions I had to make was to determine the winner of an award named for Leland. There was one obvious choice: Princeton University's Robert P. George.
Like Leland, Professor George is committed to religious liberty for all. He has been a leading voice against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's (HHS) obnoxious mandate requiring nearly all employers, including religious institutions, to provide free health insurance coverage for abortifacients, contraceptives, and sterilization in violation of their deeply held religious convictions. He has served as a stalwart spokesman for the preservation of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. As chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he has exposed oppression against religious belief and practice.
Like Leland, George is an architect of alliances. He is the catalyst behind too many organizations to mention. And he has modeled the sort of Paul-Timothy dynamic that raises up and empowers a new generation of young leaders, of various faith traditions, all mentored by him.
And, like Leland, he's an irritant. The opponents of religious liberty aren't able to shut him up with slogans. He ploughs through their arguments with fiery rationality. He doesn't settle for "trust us" from politicians or bureaucrats (or, for that matter, from cardinals and archbishops).
Here follows the speech Robert George gave at the United States Capitol upon receiving the ERLC Leland Award. You'll see here why I treasure his character, his mind, and his courage. And you'll see why he makes presidents and legislators around the world tremble. He reminds them that the state is a good institution, but the state is not a god. State power is limited by a greater power, who will hold all lesser powers accountable.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University (web.princeton.edu/sites/jmadison). His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI Books). He has served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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