American flag waving in blue skyWritten by Don Byrd

This morning brought the great news that 4 Americans imprisoned in Iran have been released in a prisoner exchange, including Christian Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini who has been jailed for more than 3 years. According to a 2013 statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, Abedini was subject to severe abuse from Iranian prison guards in an effort to compel him to deny his Christian faith.

Religious liberty advocates have urged the Obama Administration to press for the release of Abedini, who along with his wife was active in creating Christian house churches in Iran. 

As it happens, Abedini’s release comes on January 16, Religious Freedom Day here in the United States, a day marking Virginia’s adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. (See President Obama’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation) The Virginia Statute, written by Thomas Jefferson, formed the basis for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Commemorating Religious Freedom Day in 2013, Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker wrote about the importance of church-state separation, and emphasized that it is not an anti-religious principle. Just the opposite.

A secular government does not mean it is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics nor does it strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It means only that government cannot pass laws that have a primary purpose or effect that advances religion. Religious speech in the public square and even some government venues is commonplace. . . .

Yes, our culture can be crude and some people are indifferent or hostile to religion. But the answer is not to malign the separation of church and state, which would do away with religious freedom and give government the job of promoting religion. Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance. It is for us — people of faith and religious institutions, like the church — to take up the task of making our religion winsome to the world and count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.

Read the whole thing.